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A Week to Remember: Eric Ambler

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler was born on June 28, 1909. For forty years, Ambler wrote novels and screenplays. His specialty was spy thrillers, and he helped shape that genre into its modern form.

Ambler was born into a family of entertainers. He helped to run the family’s puppet theater as a child, and his parents also performed in music halls. He initially planned a more practical career for himself, studying engineering in college and briefly working as a trainee with a London engineering firm. By the early 1930s, though, Ambler had decided that engineering was not for him. He began working as an advertising copywriter, writing occasional plays and essays. The writing was what he enjoyed most, and in the late 30s, Ambler moved to Paris and began writing full time.

He published his first novel in 1936. The Dark Frontier (e-book | print) was written as a parody of the adventure and thriller novels Ambler had read as a teenager. The jokes don’t all hold up well today because the authors and the style of writing that Ambler was poking fun at were already going out of style by the time Ambler’s novel was published. The Dark Frontier is notable, though, as one of the first novels to imagine the possibility of the atomic bomb. Ambler’s science was far off the mark, but the idea of a massively powerful weapon that could destroy cities was accurate, and Ambler correctly imagined that refugee scientists from Nazi Germany might be involved in helping anti-German countries to create such a bomb.

While there is often an undercurrent of dark humor in Ambler’s novels, the comic parody of The Dark Frontier was not to be repeated, and the rest of his 1930s novels can still be enjoyed today as entertaining thrillers. The best known of these early novels is 1939’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (e-book | print). It tells the story of a mystery writer vacationing in Istanbul, where a local policeman who is a fan of his books tells the story of an international criminal whose body has recently washed ashore. The writer is so intrigued that he travels through Europe in search of the criminal’s associates, hoping to piece together more of the man’s story.

4 books by Ambler

Among the surprises for readers of Ambler’s 1930s novels is the frequency which Soviet spies and KGB agents show up as sympathetic figures. In the years before World War II, Ambler was concerned by the rise of Hitler in Germany and the Fascists in Italy, and he viewed the Soviet Union as an important potential ally in the upcoming war against them.

When that war arrived, Ambler enrolled in the British Army. He was briefly assigned to the Royal Artillery, but because of his writing and advertising experience, he was transferred to the Army’s film unit. By the end of the war, he was in charge of that unit, and had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Ambler’s experience in the film unit proved useful after the war when he began to write screenplays. Most of the films he wrote are not often seen today, though he received an Academy Award nomination for the 1953 war film The Cruel Sea. The Ambler film with the strongest reputation today is surely 1958’s A Night to Remember, adapted from Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the Titanic. Many historians consider it to be the most accurate film about the Titanic ever made. With its enormous cast and what were, at the time, state-of-the-art special effects, it is a precursor to the epic disaster films of the 1970s, such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

When Ambler returned to novel writing in 1950, it was in collaboration with Charles Rodda; they published five novels in the 1950s under the pseudonym “Eliot Reed.” Ambler's 1952 Judgment on Deltchev (e-book | print) was the first novel to appear under his own name in more than a decade. In its harsh treatment of the Stalinist purges, it was a sharp turn from the Soviet-friendly novels he’d written 15 years earlier.

For the next thirty years, Ambler continued to write novels that helped to define the modern spy thriller. His main characters were usually not professional spies, but ordinary English people somehow caught up in international intrigue, often while on vacation elsewhere in Europe. They found themselves facing off against experienced professional spies, surprising even themselves by saving the day with their cleverness and bold action.

Another common theme in Ambler’s writing is the fear of exile. His characters are often threatened with the possibility of not being allowed to return home if they don’t do what they are told, and they frequently meet people during their adventures who have been exiled from their native countries.

Among Ambler’s most popular novels is The Light of Day (e-book | e-audio | print), which won the Edgar Award for the year’s best crime novel in 1964, and was adapted, not by Ambler, oddly enough, into the movie Topkapi. The movie was lighter in tone than Ambler’s novel, becoming a comic heist movie. The international locations and cast made it a hit, and Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for his performance.

Ambler twice won the Gold Dagger Award, the British equivalent of the Edgar. The 1959 novel Passage of Arms (e-book | print) is another Ambler “innocents abroad” story, in which an American couple gets entangled in an illegal arms deal in southeast Asia; in 1970’s The Levanter (e-book | print), an English businessman in Syria finds that a terrorist group has been using his factory to make bombs.

In the 1960s, Ambler’s screenwriting work took him briefly to the United States, where he created a television detective series. Checkmate ran for two seasons, and centered on a San Francisco detective agency that specialized in stopping crimes before they happened.

Ambler published his final novel, The Care of Time (e-book | print). In this one, it’s a writer who is pulled into international conspiracy after he agrees to help edit the memoirs of a 19th-century Russian terrorist.

Eric Ambler died in 1998. He was acknowledged as an important influence by many of the best thriller and spy writers who followed, including Graham Greene, John le Carré, and Alan Furst. In addition to the titles listed above, the rest of Ambler’s novels (including the “Eliot Reed” collaborations) are available as e-books from OverDrive.

Also This Week

June 28, 1926

Mel Brooks was born. Brooks is a writer, actor, and director who began his career in the 1950s as a television writer for sketch comic Sid Caesar. His first breakthrough as a performer came in the early 1960s when he began performing and recording comedy routines with Carl Reiner, many of which featured Brooks playing a “2000-year-old-man” who was being interviewed by Reiner. Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Brooks is Funny Man (e-book | e-audio | print).

June 25, 1944

George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat ended its 30-year run. The strip’s main characters are Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse; Krazy’s love for Ignatz is perpetually unrequited, and the mouse frequently hurls bricks at Krazy’s head. The setting is a dreamy, surreal version of the American Southwest. The strip's influence can be seen in the Road Runner cartoons of Chuck Jones and in the unorthodox layout of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes Sunday panels. Michael Tisserand’s Krazy (e-book | print) is a biography of Herriman.

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Isabelle Adjani was born. Adjani is one of France’s most acclaimed actors, and the only person ever to win five César Awards—France’s equivalent of the Oscar—for acting. She is also of the few actors to be Oscar-nominated for performances in foreign-language films, receiving nominations in 1975 for The Story of Adele H. and in 1988 for Camille Claudel (streaming | DVD).

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