Dangerous games - Eric Ambler

For Graham Greene he was "unquestionably our best thriller writer". John le Carré once called him "the source on which we all draw". With the six novels he wrote in the years leading up to the second world war - five of which have just been reissued by Penguin Modern Classics - Eric Ambler revitalised the British thriller, rescuing the genre from the jingoistic clutches of third-rate imitators of John Buchan, and recasting it in a more realist, nuanced and leftishly intelligent - not to mention exciting - mould. His novels were all out of print by the time he died in October 1998, but his tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of carelessly malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, seemed anything but out of date when I first read them the following year - the year in which Naomi Klein's No Logo brought concerns about the depredations of globalised capital into the mainstream, and thousands of people were displaced by the war in Kosovo.

However, Ambler never intended to be a thriller writer. If his 1985 autobiography, the wrily entitled Here Lies Eric Ambler, is to be believed, his ambition as a young man was to be a playwright. Born 100 years ago this month in south-east London, the eldest child of music-hall artists, he won at the age of 16 a scholarship to study engineering at Northampton Polytechnic in Islington (now City University). He soon dropped out, and after the general strike found a job as a trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company. During a six-month secondment to the firm's cable works in Gloucestershire, he wrote the first two chapters of a realist novel, in the manner of Arnold Bennett, based on the life of his father. Returning to London, he was asked to compose a press release extolling the bogus virtues of a batch of dodgy bulbs for car headlights. They sold so quickly on the back of it that the company even thought about making more. As for Ambler, the experience may or may not have given him a taste for concocting plausible fictions with a pseudo-technical bent, but it certainly showed he had a talent for it. Before long he was working full-time as an advertising copywriter.

Here Lies is almost coy in the way it slips mention of Ambler's first novel into the narrative: he gives his girlfriend a bound page proof in a cinema on King's Road, Chelsea, just before the lights go down. The Dark Frontier (1936) began life as a parody of the contemporary British thriller. The problem with the genre, as Ambler saw it, was principally one of character. Whether "power-crazed or coldly sane", the villains were wholly implausible, while the hero "could be a tweedy fellow with steel-grey eyes and gun pads on both shoulders or a moneyed dandy with a taste for adventure. He could also be a xenophobic ex-officer with a nasty antisemitic streak. None of that really mattered. All he really needed to function as hero was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones." Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, framed it slightly differently: "After the first world war began, spy stories became unequivocally nationalist in tone and rightwing in political sympathy."

In The Dark Frontier a mild-mannered academic is knocked on the head in a car accident shortly after picking up one of these novels in a West Country pub. He comes round convinced he is Conway Carruthers, secret agent, the thick-skulled, tough-knuckled hero of the book he's just been reading, and charges off to eastern Europe to thwart the nuclear ambitions of a power-crazed countess. It's extremely silly, but also, as if despite itself, a fairly decent thriller, not merely mocking but beginning to improve on the shortcomings of the form. That contemporary readers were prepared to take it at face value is perhaps a sign of how severe those shortcomings were. The Scotsman called it a "genuine thriller".

By the time reviews of The Dark Frontier were coming out, Ambler was already deep into his next book, a straight - or at least non-parodic - thriller with the working title Background to Danger. A short, fast-paced, intensely gripping novel, set over the course of a few days in November 1936, it was written during "the year in which Italy invaded Abyssinia, civil war broke out in Spain and Hitler ordered the German army to reoccupy the Rhineland," as Ambler says in Here Lies. "It was a year of yet more refugees and of marriages arranged to confer passports. It was also the year in which the League of Nations was at last seen plainly to be impotent. Those were the things that I was trying, in my own fictional terms, to write about."

The protagonist of Uncommon Danger, as Hodder & Stoughton thought the novel should be called, is not a professional hero. Far from it. Kenton is a 30-year-old cash-strapped freelance journalist, based in Berlin, working for whichever London papers will use his stories. He "had never regarded himself as a particularly courageous man. Such scenes of physical violence as he had encountered in his work had upset both his digestion and his mental processes." He's no good with his fists, missing his target the one time in the novel he tries to punch someone, and has never fired a gun before in his life. Most of the heroes of Ambler's subsequent novels are in the same mould: a journalist, a teacher or an engineer rather than a professional spy, short of money, not straightforwardly a member of any one nation-state (Kenton's father was from Belfast, his mother French), and slightly disreputable.

Kenton is introduced as he waits in the cold at Nuremberg station in the middle of the night; he is trying to get to Vienna, because he's lost all his money and got into debt playing poker dice; there's a man in the Austrian capital, a Jew he helped to escape from Munich two years earlier, from whom he thinks he might be able to borrow money, although he'd really rather not have to ask. So when a fellow passenger offers him a substantial sum to smuggle an envelope over the frontier, he's all too willing to oblige. The story doesn't take long to get going. "Kenton was one of those persons, of whom there are many, who find the contemplation of scenery very boring." And Ambler isn't one to waste time with gratuitous passages of description. Kenton soon finds himself not only wanted by the Austrian police for a murder he didn't commit, but up against a particularly vicious thug called Stefan Saridza and entangled in a plot to install a fascist government in Romania.

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