Espionage and armament sales in the slow build up to the Second World War
Eric Ambler’s spy novels do follow a set formula, which sometimes works magnificently, and sometimes leaves a little dissatisfaction. Had I never read any Ambler before, I might have liked this one, one of his great five earlier novels written in the build-up to the Second World War and its early days, with less of a slight niggle. Hugely enjoyable, and in the main tightly written, as always, but lacking the brilliance of my personal favourite, The Mask Of Dimitrios.
Ambler’s politics were of the left, and he was someone who saw the dangers of fascist politics quite early. His espionage novels do not involve sophisticated lantern-jawed heroes , imbued with glamour and steely masculinity, saving the State. Instead, his heroes almost invariably are quite ordinary men who are not professional spies or spy killers, but who unwittingly, unwillingly find themselves in dangerous situations as politics and history unfold around them. He is interested in the ‘little man’ caught up in something he doesn’t understand – someone almost an innocent abroad – and, at times, a fool because he fails to understand that innocence is often dangerous ignorance.
So it is here. Nicholas Marlow is an engineer, recently engaged, and recently made redundant – we are in the pre-war thirties, and jobs not easy to find. Marlow is getting a little desperate as he wants a job in order to marry. And then he discovers one for which he is almost a perfect fit. A British firm, Spartacus, is supplying shell-cases to Italian companies. It is late 1936, and Germany and Italy, two countries with Fascist leaders, have already formed the Berlin-Rome Axis. The British company had a British man in Milan who had been creating and managing the business opportunities for trade with Italian armaments firms, but this man had recently died in a hit-and-run accident.
They are looking for an Italian speaker (tick) who is also an engineer who can talk the tech specs (tick) and if possible, someone who is a salesman. Marlowe is not the latter, but otherwise is perfect, and, as no one applying for the job carries the triple kill, he gets it by virtue of the more important first two requirements. And off he goes to Milan, where things appear to be, almost immediately, shady. There are a couple of dodgy or incompetent personnel working in the Milan office. His predecessor had been living in a palatial accommodation he should not have been able to afford on his salary, and, almost immediately Marlowe is schmoozed by a couple of very different characters, each of whom warns him against the other. There are signposts for the reader, and for Marlow himself, which immediately render one more trustworthy than the other. An oleaginous General, a Yugoslav, and a bluff, stocky man with a prize-fighter’s nose, unruly hair, blue eyes, an energetic manner, an American accent and a Russian name.
And then Marlow’s is summoned by the police to present his documents. His passport is taken away for inspection, and promptly lost. His mail is also being steamed open and read by person or person’s unknown. A lot of people seem to be interested in an innocent salesman selling armaments
Ambler does not labour the clearly ambiguous situation Marlow finds himself in, or that Spartacus itself is engaged in, but here is where ‘innocence’ and dangerous ignorance begin to come together, and the reader, not to mention Marlow himself, have to think that most actions come with agendas, and we need to consider some kind of morality :
If Spartacus were willing to sell shell-production machinery and someone else were willing to buy it, it was not for me to discuss the rights and wrongs of the business. I was merely an employee. It was not my responsibility. Hallett would probably have had something to say about it, but Hallett was a socialist. Business was business. The thing to do was to mind one’s own
Quite quickly, the innocent abroad is in a position of danger, without any real understanding of why and how
This is a terrific, intelligent page-turner. There are a couple of coincidences and deviations too far : I was not quite sure why the encounter with a mathematician was placed in the mix, it seemed a bit of an unnecessary diversion., though in the foreword, which, as is my won’t, I read afterwards, John Preston (foreword writer in my Penguin Modern Classics edition) argues for it. It’s no spoiler to have mentioned it here, though, I promise!.
Ambler is always worth reading. There are thrills, and, in the main, plausible adventures, not to mention great characters. He is always free from jingoism and there is little endemic anti-Semitism in his writing, something which was regrettably common in many books penned at this time, before later events showed what a bed-rock of racial or group prejudice could lead to.
a 1951 noir film with the same title is unrelated to Ambler’s novel