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Beyond the Balkans – Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940


Beyond the Balkans – Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was one of the foremost architects of espionage fiction as it exists today. Like his predecessor Somerset Maugham, Ambler sought to transform the genre from the verbal banality and minimal characterizations of authors William Le Queux and Edward Oppenheim to a more sophisticated, morally ambiguous world of deception and danger.

Beyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940 1

Eric Ambler

But to me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired a shot – but who paid for the bullet.
Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitros, c1939

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was one of the foremost architects of espionage fiction as it exists today. Like his predecessor Somerset Maugham, Ambler sought to transform the genre from the verbal banality and minimal characterizations of authors William Le Queux and Edward Oppenheim to a more sophisticated, morally ambiguous world of deception and danger. Ambler also coursed the genre in another markedly different direction by moving away from the more conservative, pro-British, “King and Crown” intrigues of John Buchan to explore other, more complex political venues. As Ambler himself later said, “I looked around for something I could change and decided it was the thriller-espionage story. I decided to turn that upside down and make the heroes left wing and popular front figures.”1 To this end he was extraordinarily successful. Between the years 1936 and 1940 Ambler wrote six classic political novels: The Dark Frontier (1936), Uncommon Danger (1937), Epitaph for a Spy (1938), Cause for Alarm (1938), The Mask of Dimitros (1939), and Journey Into Fear (1940).

Ambler embraced espionage fiction at a critical juncture. By 1936, Le Queux was dead; Oppenheim had grown excessively tedious and largely unreadable; Buchan was serving as the Governor-General of Canada and had largely forsaken the genre; and Maugham had left England amid a sex scandal and moved to France where he was writing short stories and plays. Into this void, stepped Ambler who took the spy story by its aristocratic neck, whipped the monocle out of its eye and pulled it down into the world of the common man.2 One critic, when evaluating Ambler’s contribution to the genre, observes: “At last Ambler came; and from his Uncommon Danger (1937) we may date the transfiguration of the spy story. Ambler showed that human characterization, good prose, political intelligence, and above all a meticulously detailed realism, far from getting in the way of intricate spy adventures, can strengthen them, and raise them to a new plane.”3

Ambler was born in London where he attended London University. After college, he briefly worked in advertising, before moving to Paris where he dedicated himself to writing. Since Buchan, the British spy novel had become extremely formulaic and increasingly anti-Semitic, jingoistic and xenophobic; the very traits that Ambler – by the mid-1930s – had decided were hopelessly anachronistic.4 But, instead of lamenting the gloomy state of the genre, he saw in it considerable potential for exploring more serious issues, particularly the numerous geopolitical crises in Europe drawn the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.

Like many young intellectuals during the interwar years, Ambler was attracted by socialist ideas and supported the Popular Front, although he never became a Communist. During the 1930s, he spent as much time as possible traveling in Europe and was fully aware of the nature of totalitarian regimes as well as the threat they posed to peace. And this is seemingly what attracted Ambler to espionage rather than the detective story. In the spy novel, he found the ability to encompass international action and topical themes, such as the economic conflict between capitalism and socialism, and the political battles between the Right and the Left. It could, therefore, transcend contemporary closed-world, middle class biases and engage the major political issues of the day.5 Too, as a more practical matter, there was also no shortage of potential plots. Arms dealers and industrialists were widely credited in the early 1930s with pursuing profits at the expense of peace and thereby spawning World War I. This image was further solidified upon the onset of the Depression that gave further credence to the notion of the capitalist and industrialist as forces, not of harmony and stability, but of menace, with their collective greed and moral ambiguity acknowledged as a clear and present danger to world order.6 Beyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940 2 Against this backdrop, Ambler sought to cast his new spy protagonist as one who begins as an innocent and finds himself slowly trapped and sometimes crushed by the forces of politics, espionage, and the incomprehensibility of life beyond the frontiers of Britain, especially life in the strife-ridden Balkans. Ambler’s opinion on the industrialist arms dealers’ “merchants of death” conspiracy is clearly reflected in his first novel, The Dark Frontier, when one of the characters, Professor Bairstow, guilelessly states: “It looked as if there would always be wars…What else could you expect from a balance of power adjusted in terms of land, of arms, of man-power and of materials: in terms, in other words, of money?…Wars were made by those who had the power to upset the balance, to tamper with international money and money’s worth.”7

While Dark Frontier was far from being one of Ambler’s more memorable books, it marked a revolutionary, disillusioned, and even cynical approach to the espionage story. Further, his interpretation of the world situation, however dark, was reflective of the circa 1930s’ popular opinion wherein most thinking people realized the hollowness of the politicians’ pretence that World War I was “the war to end all wars.” Aggressive forces were on the march all over Europe and in the Balkans, democracy was being spelt out as a dirty word, and the private manufacture of arms was aiding the enemies of democracy more than the countries that actually produced the weapons.

Still, Ambler struck a note of neutralism in his spy novels, sharply and astringently enlightening the reader that, in the pursuit of espionage, one side was really as bad as the other and that spies and spy-catchers were not only mainly un-heroic, but very often of minor significance and unpleasant mien.8 In Ambler’s vision, the agents and spies were not splendid patriots, but hired killers, and his stories of espionage sought to reveal certain truths of the matter, thus extinguishing any lingering romantic notions as promoted by Buchan, Oppenheim and his other predecessors. In his second novel, Uncommon Danger – released as Background to Danger in the United States – the central character, Nicholas Kenton, is an archetypal antihero rather than the conventional ultra-patriotic hero of earlier thrillers. A cosmopolitan journalist, Kenton is the model for the typical Ambler protagonist in subsequent novels: an ordinary, unexceptional person who, by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is suddenly involved in a network of political and criminal duplicity of which he was previously unaware.

Also in Uncommon Danger, Ambler begins to refine his sense of sinister realism. And while it can be argued that the plot structure of Uncommon Danger in some respects resembles that of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, critics immediately saw that Ambler’s approach was refreshingly new and different, with the plot firmly embedded in the real-life European political triad that had emerged as the battleground of the 1930s: socialism against capitalism, Marxism against fascism, and democracy against totalitarianism. Indeed, the Soviet military secrets around which the novel is based relate specifically to an actual source of European tension, the oil-producing region of Bessarabia, controlled by Romania since 1918, but claimed by the Soviet Union. He then gives added credibility to his fictional conspiracy involving governments and big business by including references to contemporary politicians and organizations.9

Another aspect of Ambler’s subversion of the standard spy novel is the reversal of its characteristic ideological stance. His satire of big business and monopoly capitalism, represented by the multinational Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company, as well as his sympathetic treatment of a brother-and-sister pair of Soviet agents, Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, make this a left-wing novel, which was a startling innovation at the time.10 But in broadly endorsing socialist values, Ambler concurrently attacks British insularity for its refusal to acknowledge the political degeneration of continental Europe. With this viewpoint, Ambler brought an unexpected sophistication to the genre and, both stylistically and formalistically, his early novels are much subtler than the standard British spy novels of the time, offering – in the late 1930s – a unique, if pessimistic view, of the world situation, principally in their portrayal of Nazism from a non-British, more “third person” point of view. This is particularly evident in Epitaph for a Spy and Cause for Alarm.

Structurally, Epitaph for a Spy is closer to the English detective novel than to the fast-moving thriller, but Ambler handles the form in his own unique way so that his political concerns are never far from the surface. The story is set in the relatively closed world of a hotel in the south of France. Yet, despite its Beyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940 3quiet hotel setting, Epitaph for a Spy effectively reaches out to embrace the political happenings in Europe at the time. Ambler peoples the hotel with a varied and cosmopolitan cadre, including Nazi agents and anti-Nazi Marxists so that the hotel can thus be seen as a microcosm of the many tensions tearing Europe apart at the end of the 1930s.

Knowing that among the twelve people in the hotel is a spy gathering information about French naval secrets, the police pressure one of these, the first-person narrator Vadassy, to help them from the inside. Like Ambler’s customary protagonists, the ethnically Hungarian Vadassy is an ordinary person who has the misfortune to find himself in the middle of something sinister through no fault of his own. Yet, as a stateless person without any family – and very much a victim of the calamities and redrawn boundaries in Eastern Europe after World War I – Vadassy emerges as the consummate Ambler outsider and loner. The French police exploit Vadassy’s vulnerability to make him cooperate, but Vadassy’s efforts at detection prove to be extremely clumsy. As it comes to pass, the police actually discovered the identity of the spy at the hotel early in their investigation, and Vadassy’s role as amateur detective is a subterfuge by the French police to help them identify an entire Italian spy ring rather than a solitary operative.

In Epitaph for a Spy, Ambler creates a totally unexpected blend of the spy novel and the classical detective story that turns out to be different from either. Yet he plays with both formulas in such a way as to produce a political novel of considerable topicality and, published a year before World War II began, the novel is full of portents of conflict as European civilization teetered on the edge of war. As Ambler noted in an after word to the novel: “I wrote Epitaph for a Spy in 1937, and it was a mild attempt at realism. The central character is a stateless person, there are no professional devils, and the only Britisher in the story is anything but stalwart. I still like bits of it.” 11

With Cause for Alarm Ambler returned to the pattern of the alternative thriller he had developed in Uncommon Danger, but with more sophistication and subtlety. The main setting is Mussolini’s Italy rather than central or eastern Europe, and includes a chapter in the British edition – it was excised in the first American edition – that details an account of how a brilliant Italian scientist was gradually driven insane by his treatment under the Fascists. The narrative of pursuit and escape inevitably slows down for such discursive treatment of the history of Italian Fascism, but it does provide the novel with more historical breadth and political depth than it would have had otherwise. Whereas the plots of Ambler’s earlier novels hinge on the familiar device of a quest for secret documents, that of Cause for Alarm involves an ingenious intelligence ploy by the Soviet agent Andreas Zaleshoff to plant information designed to cause a rift between his ideological enemies: Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Any damage to their Berlin-Rome Axis would postpone, if only temporarily, the risk of war. Just as Kenton cooperates with Zaleshoff in Uncommon Danger, a young English engineer, Marlow, becomes Zaleshoff’s associate in Cause for Alarm, and most of the novel is told from Marlow’s point of view. Like Kenton, Marlow is the antitype of the conventional thriller hero, but is more naive and insular in his liberalism. The opportunity to run his small company’s Milan office proves to be Marlow’s baptism of fire, bringing him face to face with the political nightmares of contemporary Europe and the moral incongruities of serving commercial interests by cooperating with tyrannical regimes.12

On one side is General Vagas, a senior Nazi spy who offers Marlow bribes to provide secret information about the Italian armaments industry. On the other is Zaleshoff with his Marxist analysis of the “gospel of King Profit” and his determination to do what he can to preserve European peace by undermining, at least to some extent, the Berlin-Rome Axis. Marlow sides with Zaleshoff and is able to feed Vagas intelligence about Italy’s secret military airfields, information being deliberately concealed from Germany. While Zaleshoff and Marlow eventually do achieve their aim, their success is much more muted than Zaleshoff’s victory at the end of Uncommon Danger. The novel ends in midair with “But…” Yet the qualified optimism of the epilogue proved illusory for, within a year, Europe was again at war.

Ambler next wrote The Mask of Dimitros which, for many readers, remains his best spy novel, emerging not only as an espionage story, but as an imaginative history of the decisive years between the World War I and the rise of Hitler, when Britain, France, the United States and the other powers position themselves for influence and power while the situation in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle and Far East deteriorated, making World War II all but inevitable.

In The Mask of Dimitros Ambler returns his attention to the Balkans. Charles Latimer, a British academic with a sideline in writing detective fiction, finds himself on holiday in Turkey, where he is socially cornered by a high-ranking member of the Turkish police. This policeman, Colonel Haki, is a fan of detective fiction, and very much wants to give Latimer the plot for his next book. Latimer has had many such helpful sessions with fans before, and is trying to find a graceful exit when Colonel Haki, after being momentarily distracted by real police business, looks at Latimer speculatively and asks, “I wonder if you are interested in real murderers, Mr. Latimer?” 13

Latimer rises to the occasion and begins to learn the story of Dimitros Makropolous, a criminal and spy whose body had recently ended up in police custody after being pulled out of the Bosphorus by a fisherman. Dimitros’ background is sketchy, but he had been implicated in at least one murder for hire, might have worked as a spy for France, had trafficked in narcotics, and had somehow been involved in a political assassination. Certain parts of his past travels are well known, while several years of his background are entirely blank. Stung in part by Colonel Haki’s intimation that although he writes of murderers, he knows nothing about them, Latimer somewhat impulsively embarks upon “an experiment in detection.” He tries to retrace Dimitros’ progress, at first by trying to visit all the countries where he had made an impact. Beyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940 4Along the way, Latimer cannot avoid meeting some of Dimitros’ former associates and the experiment in detection becomes less and less academic.

The principal innovation in The Mask of Dimitros is the slow manner in which Ambler reveals pieces of Dimitros’ story, even though the need for the details of that story becomes more and more urgent for Latimer. Along the way, the reader sees much that is surprising about 1930s Europe: a white-slavery racket, the heroin trade, and the tricks of the espionage market for military secrets. The resulting double-layer plot is complicated, and touches on elements of post-World War I history that have largely been lost to casual modern readers.

But the novel also brings a subtle Marxist viewpoint into play. Dimitros is presented not merely as a morally degenerate individual, but also as the symptom of a diseased society rooted in capitalist exploitation, one that prioritizes money at the expense of moral and spiritual values. Despite the reference to Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf in the novel, Ambler nowhere draws parallels between Dimitros and Hitler, but, upon closer inspection, these may have been at the back of his mind. Like Hitler, Dimitros was born in 1889, began to attract attention in the early 1920s, was involved in a political coup in 1923, achieved outward respectability and a position of power in the early 1930s, and interfered in the affairs of other countries in the late 1930s.14 And this, it seems, appears to be something considerably more than coincidence, for in September 1939 Adolf Hitler precipitated World War II.

The outbreak of hostilities soon brought Ambler’s career as a novelist to a standstill, but before it did so, he quickly wrote the sixth and last book of his first phase, Journey into Fear, which directly braced the German threat of the period. Although less ambitious than The Mask of Dimitros, it breaks new ground in one important respect: it is the most psychological of his early spy novels. In it, Ambler undertakes a study in depth of one of his typical antiheroes, Graham, a scientist who initially seems an embodiment of English insularity: conventional, unimaginative, and politically unaware. A leading expert in the arms industry, Graham is capable of making a significant contribution to the war effort against Germany because of his knowledge of Turkey’s secret military plans. However, due to this knowledge, Graham finds himself targeted by a Nazi assassination squad while on a mission to Turkey. Like Kenton and Marlow, Graham is an English innocent abroad who unexpectedly finds himself at the center of a malevolent plot.

Primarily set on a ship in the Mediterranean with a small number of passengers, Journey into Fear is a closed-world narrative not unlike the hotel-based Epitaph for a Spy and involves a similar range of cosmopolitan characters. Graham, having survived one attempt on his life in Turkey, is soon aware that his would-be assassin is also on board the ship and has little difficulty in identifying him. While building the requisite tension and suspense, Ambler also keeps the political dimension in the foreground through Graham’s introspection and psychological analysis. Finding himself in the psychological equivalent of aBeyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940 5

death cell, Graham is forced to reassess his entire outlook on life, including politics, and experiences a kind of enlightenment. The boat journey becomes a journey of self-discovery, with fear being the necessary stimulus. Coming to terms with reality, Graham finds within himself the strength to resist what seems inevitable – his murder – and even finds the determination to fight back. In this way, he personifies Britain’s need to take on the Nazi threat. Whereas Kenton and Marlow experienced a change of heart and mind through the influence of others and succeed by joining forces with Zaleshoff, Graham has to rely entirely on his own resources. Here, in the only novel Ambler wrote during wartime, his characteristic antihero, alone and under intense pressure, becomes a heroic, even patriotic emblem of Britain’s resistance to Nazism. Whatever the odds against him, Graham chooses not only to battle it out rather than submit fatalistically, but also, if possible, to win.15

Ambler’s novels also witnessed the rise of a new class of readers. As to why this occurred, it seems that the interest in and the power of his novels arose not only from the figurations of fascism and capitalism, but also in the figuration of a new class, a new character in the popular imagination: a class of professionals and managers, engineers and technicians. It is a class of people which is in many ways the hired guns of capitalism; nevertheless, it does work for a wage – if thinly disguised as a salary – while its only real capital lies in the certifications of university training. And it was this class of society that increasingly became the readership of Ambler’s serious and literate espionage stories.16

Journey into Fear also holds another distinction. It appears to signal a shift in Ambler’s political position following the outbreak of war. Ambler later admitted that he was still surprised that he so readily decided that the lead character and object of the reader’s sympathy and concern in Journey into Fear should be an arms salesman. “This would have been almost unthinkable in the earlier prewar novels, in three of which the company Graham works for, Cator and Bliss, represents the worst side of capitalism – heartless, money-grubbing, and warmongering.” 17

While completing Journey into Fear, Ambler correctly presumed that, when faced with the scenario of World War II, he would almost certainly not be able to finish another novel if he began it. And while he did indeed continue writing after the cessation of hostilities, Ambler’s most significant contributions to the evolution of espionage fiction rest in the publication of his prewar novels. Accordingly, we perhaps owe more to Eric Ambler than to any other espionage novelist because he rescued the spy novel from the kind of slough into which the detective novel had fallen. At a time when most spy writers were congenital Tories, he applied his enlightened intelligence to the political background of espionage. And, without Ambler, it seems highly unlikely that either Le Carré or Deighton would have emerged.18

As suggested by an interview conducted some three years before his death, Ambler was not only aware of the extent to which world political affairs held sway over the genre, but also the importance of maintaining some measure of neutralism while writing an espionage novel:

Early in my life and books, I was a little to the left. I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice. I’m of the same generation as [Graham] Greene. While he was hostile to America, he was never rude about it. I never put the Cold War in any of my books. Never took sides during the Cold War, not that I was a closet Communist. I always found the Cold War distasteful. For my wartime generation, it meant taking the best years of your life and turning them around. After the war, nobody wanted to return to prewar conditions. They had dreams of an improved way of life. Unfortunately, the Cold War did not help those dreams.19


1 David Stafford, The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies, (Toronto: Lester and Orphen Dennys, 1998), 133.

2 James Sandoe, “Dagger of the Mind,” in The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946), 260.

3 Anthony Boucher, “Trojan Horse Opera,” in The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946), 245.

4 Peter Lewis, “Eric Ambler,” in Mystery and Suspense Writers, ed. Robin W. Winks (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998), 14.

5 Ibid.

6 Stafford, 133.

7 Donald McCormick, Who’s Who in Spy Fiction, (New York: Taplinger, 1977), 22.

8 Ibid.

9 Lewis, 15.

10 Ibid.

11 Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy, (New York: Bantam Books, 1953), 200.

12 Lewis, 17.

13 Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitros, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996), 10.

14 Lewis, 18.

15 Ibid, 19.

16 Michael Denning, Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 78.

17 Eric Ambler, Intrigue: Three Famous Novels in One Volume, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), iv.

18 John Atkins, The British Spy Novel: Styles in Treachery. (London: John Calder, 1984), 247.

19 Herberg Mitgang, “Still Writing after All These Years,” The Progressive, March 1995, (accessed March 5, 2006).

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