by Radmila May
Ambler began writing in 1936, when he was working a copywriter, having abandoned a career in engineering. At that time very much on the left of politics, his political views influenced his earlier novels. In addition he was impatient with the clichéd characters that populated most thrillers/spy stories of the day, described by Ambler himself as ‘the black-velveted seductress, the British secret service numbskull hero, the omnipotent spymaster’.
All Ambler’s earlier novels were informed by his political views at the time he wrote: the Soviet Union was largely benign, and the Soviet agents who feature in the stories were on the side of right. The villains are often at the head of large rather sinister capitalist organisations who are quite happy with the concept of regime change if it would benefit their financial aims and are prepared to recruit sinister and violent assassins to that end. However, he was deeply disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and thereafter became largely disinterested in politics, and his cynicism about politics informed his later books although his distrust of corporations continued. During the war he joined the army and was drafted into the army film unit; after the war he worked as a screen writer and producer for Ealing Studios, writing, for instance, the screenplays for The Cruel Sea, The Card and A Night to Remember.
Some of the other novels have interlocking narratives: Passage of Arms, The Intercom Conspiracy and The Levanter are examples. And in The Light of Day Ambler introduced a new type of accidental hero, the petty criminal who is, like the basically honest but naïve and inexperienced heroes of the earlier books, drawn over his head into a mire of intrigue and intrigue. These later novels, although critically well received, were less popular with the public than his earlier ones; Ambler had been outflanked on one side by the tawdry glamour of the James Bond novels, and on the other by writers like Le Carre, with his knowledge of how the secret services actually worked, and Len Deighton with his feeling for how society had changed in the 60s, the 70s and later. And it became apparent to me while preparing this appreciation that in his novels he did not take into account the changing role of women who are mostly peripheral to his plots. This may surprise men, but if women are excluded or marginalised in stories they may feel that they need not bother to read them! There have been some titles by male writers in recent years with women protagonists, notably Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, Sebastian Faulk’s Charlotte Grey and William Boyd’s Restless, but so far as I know, none by women (I wonder why not) apart from the genre of romantic suspense/thrillers especially those of Mary Stewart but that genre has all but disappeared in the U.K. (although not in the U.S.) although there are signs of a revival in this country – but the titles are certainly not read by most men! So go on, women crime writers – take up the challenge and write a spy thriller with a woman at its heart which is both exciting and at least moderately intelligent!
Five of his early novels were reprinted, and most of the others are now either in print or available as e-books; just two (Dirty Story, The Intercom Conspiracy) appear to be only available second hand. More recently (August 2015), the philosopher John Gray, interviewed for the BBC Magazine, said that Ambler’s novels, with their characters adrift in a fractured and uncertain Europe in a process of disintegration, hold an uncomfortable mirror to the modern world ruled by financial and geopolitical forces that care nothing for the modern individual but which in turn may be defeated by their own stupidity.