In Praise of Eric Ambler

Late last year, when I came across the news that Eric Ambler’s centenary was coming up in 2009, I realized how little of the man’s work I’d actually read. And so in short order I went on a mission to correct that, burning through his first six novels published during the period of 1936 and 1940, all of which were reissued by Vintage some years ago in the US and are being brought back into print by Penguin in the UK in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth.

To my delight and amazement, those early Ambler novels held up rather well, none more than A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1939). My appreciation for the book, and Ambler, appears this weekend in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how it opens:

Eric Ambler, born 100 years ago next month, mastered as a young man a
genre still in its infancy. Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” (1907)
and John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (1915) preceded his works,
and compatriots Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham fashioned artful
thrillers out of turbulent political times alongside him. But Ambler’s
mix of swift pacing, believable protagonists and thrilling locales
proved an untold influence on those who took up the spy-story pen in
his wake. After all, when James Bond, in the film version of “From
Russia With Love,” needed a book to read on a critical train trip, he
chose an Eric Ambler novel—specifically, “A Coffin For Dimitrios,”
which 70 years after its 1939 publication holds up as a startling,
elegant masterpiece of espionage fiction.

Ambler’s oeuvre, especially the six novels he wrote between 1936 and
1940, grew out of his background, pursuits and outlook: early exposure
to the music-hall world through his parents’ touring puppet show, a
bachelor’s degree in engineering, a copywriting stint at a London
advertising agency, time spent writing avant-garde plays in Paris, and
staunch anti-Fascist views. Add to these a strong disdain for the
all-too-familiar tropes of the spy stories popular during his English
boyhood—described by Ambler in a 1951 essay as “the black-velveted
seductress, the British secret-service numbskull hero, the omnipotent
spymaster”—and the stage was set for a more realistic approach that has
itself become commonplace: taking an ordinary man and dropping him in
the middle of extraordinary events that will put him in danger, test
his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.

  Read on for the rest, and the specifics of why I think COFFIN is so damn brilliant. There are many pieces I am proud of, and many publications I'm honored to be a part of, even for a short while, but I have to admit I'm really quite excited to be in the WSJ.