Ambler, Eric (pulp fiction writer)


(1909-1998) Also wrote as: Eliot Reed

If Eric Ambler was not the inventor of the “modern” spy novel—that title must go to the English novelist Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) for a single, autobiographical work, Ashenden—he was certainly among the first few authors to establish the boundaries and possibilities for such a genre. Sporting left-wing sympathies (and, after World War II, a jaded middle-of-the-road political stance), he brought an iconoclastic sensibility to what had been a hidebound form of popular fiction, either mindless action and intrigue or earnest patriotic adventure. He was also, not incidentally, a writer of great skill and wit, whose best work was colorful, insidiously amusing, and ineffably cool. Ambler, whose first novel was published in 1936, and who was still working into the 1990s, bridged the gap between the old world spy fiction of E. Phillips oppenheim and his ilk—Riviera casinos, tuxedoed Secret Service agents, mysterious trans-European train journeys and Balkan border crossings—and the more complex and cynical espionage stories of the cold war and beyond, most popularly represented by the works of John le Carre. Ambler shared his historical and literary position with fellow Englishman Graham Greene: both writers favored colorful, exotic settings, anti-establishment heroes, an iconoclastic outsider’s perspective, and an atmosphere of general seediness. But Ambler was more generous, funnier and less pretentious (feeling no need to label his entertaining topics as “entertainments” the way Greene did), and his sharp, lucid prose was just as good.

Born in London and educated at London University, Ambler first considered a career in engineering, then pursued a burgeoning flair for words as a copywriter at an advertising agency. He had moved up to creative director by the time of the publication of his first two novels, The Dark Frontier (1936) and Uncommon Danger (1937), (brought out in America by Alfred A. Knopf as Background to Danger). These were followed by Epitaph for a Spy (1938) and Cause For Alarm, (1938) like the first two, suspense novels with continental settings. With a third and fourth novel published, Ambler had enjoyed sufficient success to quit the advertising grind and devote all his time to writing novels. Already, Ambler had separated himself from the English spy story traditions. He chose to stay away from professional espionage agent heroes, preferring ordinary people caught up in strange circumstances, or footloose characters (journalists, writers, adventurers). He also showed little of the jingoistic, “Rule, Brittania” spirit of the earlier specialists. His cold, hard prose and wryly cynical attitude were closer in style and spirit to the American hard-boiled fiction of Dashiell hammett than to Oppenheim, Sapper, author of the Bulldog Drummond stories, or others in the old guard.

The highlight of Ambler’s early years as a novelist was The Mask of Dimitrios (1939, retitled A Coffin for Dimitrios in the United States), an original and entertaining dissection of a colorful international criminal. More complex and ambitious than Ambler’s previous works, the story advanced on two planes—the investigations of Latimer, an English academic turned detective novelist (author of A Bloody Shovel), as he pieces together the biography of a supposedly dead Dimitrios, following a trail of swindle, espionage, and murder from Istanbul through eastern Europe to France, and the elaborate recollections of Dimitrios’s friends and enemies that Latimer meets along the way. In the end, in a slowly anticipated but blissfully satisfying plot development, the two planes come together, with Latimer facing down a figure seemingly back from the dead: Dimitrios himself. The story climaxes in a welter of suspense, a final blackmail plot, a fight to the death, and two blood-soaked bodies in a back-alley Paris apartment. Ambler concludes with a signature irony: like an appalled Alice backing away from all she has seen down the rabbit hole, Latimer flees the secret world he has uncovered (the world of ruthless criminals, ubiquitous corruption, global events controlled by international corporations and paid assassins) and returns to the comforting unreality of his next cozy mystery plot, another gentle murder in the country vicarage.

The influence of Dimitrios’s plot and structure could be felt in other works through the years. Graham Greene’s The Third Man would feature another criminal mastermind, Harry Lime, presumed dead but “resurrected.” The way Ambler constructs Dimitrios’s life story would be repeated on film in Citizen Kane (and Orson Welles would then codirect and star in an adaptation of Ambler’s Journey into Fear). The intricate structure of Ambler’s Dimitrios would soon become a standard method for telling the story in assorted ’40s filmnoirs, where flashbacks, convoluted plots, and so-ciopathic protagonists became the norm. In fact, the Hollywood film version of Ambler’s novel, using the American title, starred Peter Lorre (as Latimer) and Sydney Greenstreet, two film noir stalwarts first teamed in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

The annual Ambler releases were interrupted after 1940 by World War II. Ambler entered the service and became an important figure in the army’s cinema unit, documenting the war and producing propaganda for the Allies. The contacts and experience he gained would lead to screen writing work for British and American movie companies. His credits include scripts for the films The Magic Box, The Purple Plain, and A Night To Remember (the British film about the Titanic disaster). Ambler returned to novel-writing after the war, but his comeback novels (Judgment on Deltchev and The Schirmer Inheritance), contemporary tales of intrigue, lacked the old zest. More readable were a series of light suspense adventures Ambler wrote with Charles Rodda under the pen name of Eliot Reed. The Night-Comers (also published as State of Siege), Ambler’s first novel set in the Far East, was a return to form, with a suspenseful account of an Englishman trapped in a Southeast Asian capital during a coup d’etat. Passage of Arms was even better, with a more intricate plot and big cast of colorful characters in a story about gun-running and revolution in Malaya and environs.

Ambler’s most enjoyable postwar work was a comical adventure caper with no cold war angst or international crises whatever. The narrator is Arthur Abdel Simpson, a hapless and hopelessly untrustworthy Anglo-Egyptian roustabout, part-time tour guide, pimp, and pornographer. In Greece, Simpson not quite innocently comes into the employ of a gang plotting to rob the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Simpson, in the dark, thinks he is working for terrorists and is forced to be a secret agent for the Turkish police, before ultimately joining the jewel thieves in their ingenious heist. The wonderful topic became a superb movie, Top-kapi, with Peter Ustinov as Ambler’s “hero.”

Simpson returned in a single sequel, Dirty Story (the title refers to an official description of Arthur’s life: “one long, dirty story”). This was a less clever but equally enjoyable read: the narrator stumbles out of his Mediterranean stomping ground and ends up a reluctant mercenary sent to stage a coup in a small African nation. In the same jauntily cynical frame of mind, Ambler produced his next novel, and his last great work, The Intercom Conspiracy, the story of a muckraking newsletter published in Switzerland that is used as a front for extorting payoffs from foreign intelligence agencies. The unwitting nemesis of the world’s espionage communities is another of Ambler’s seedy, amusingly unlikable protagonists, another in the author’s gallery of unsavory journalists and writers; the topic also left room for the unexpected return of Dimitrios’s old pursuer, mystery writer Charles Latimer, who has once again uncovered a good story, although this one costs him dearly—he is dispatched by an unfortunate “accident” on a roadside in France.

There was a gradual slackening of the pace and tension in the works that followed, but whatever the topics’ individual merits, for Ambler’s fans they all offered a welcome return visit to a world— of glamorous and/or exotic settings beset by intrigue, revolution, corruption, colorfully populated by shabby antiheroes, ruthless villains, terrorists thieves, dictators—that was as identifiably and ir-resistably Ambler’s as the London of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Los Angeles of Raymond chandler.


  • Ability to Kill and Other Pieces, The (1963);
  • Care of Time, The (1981);
  • Cause for Alarm (1938);
  • Dark Frontier, The (1936);
  • Dirty Story (1967);
  • Doctor Frigo (1974);
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938);
  • Intercom Conspiracy, The (1969);
  • Journey into Fear (1940);
  • Judgment on Deltchev (1951);
  • Kind of Anger, A (1964);
  • Levanter, The (1972);
  • Light of Day, The (1962);
  • Mask of Dimitrios, The (U.S. title: A Coffin for Dimitrios) (1939);
  • Night Comers, The (U.S. title: State of Siege) (1956);
  • Passage of Arms (1959);
  • Schirmer Inheritance, The (1953);
  • Send No More Roses (1997);
  • Uncommon Danger (U.S. title: Background to Danger) (1937)

As Eliot Reed:

  • Charter to Danger (1954);
  • Maras Affair, The (1953);
  • Passport to Panic (1958);
  • Skytip (1950);
  • Tender to Danger (U.K.: Tender to Moonlight) (1951)

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