The delights of becoming further acquainted with the Turkish Secret Police, circa 1939/1940
Eric Ambler represents the art of writing a good, taut, spy thriller, which also instructs beautifully about time, place, politics and character, extremely well.
Having recently re-read The Mask of Dimitrios, I thought I’d take a little saunter through some of his other books, recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, delightfully available again.
Ambler, a writer of Left sensibilities, is wonderfully free of the bedrock of Anti-Semitism which rumbled under some other writing of the time. There was a general Zeitgeist of unconscious, received, racism, until the horrific events of Holocaust began to make some question their inherent attitudes. This is not to say that those on the left were of necessity free from this, just that Ambler is clearer about ascribing venality, brutality and shadiness to individuals, rather than to races.
He’s not a writer who hangs around on description, but one who is economical and taut, whilst, it seems, fairly effortlessly describing what the reader needs in order to believe place, time, idea, narrative, character and relationship.
This particular book once again pits someone who is innocent of perfidy and derring-do, into the heart of a world where murder is not just local, individual, but is swept up in the fates of nations.
Graham is an engineer. His speciality is in high powered long range guns, and he is in Turkey helping development of missiles in the early stages of the Second World War. Turkey at this point had neutrality, though there were certainly factions wishing for closer association with the Allied Powers.
On the eve of his departure back to Britain, someone tries to kill the rather conventional, peaceable Graham. It turns out a conspiracy is afoot (isn’t there always) which he hears about when taken to meet Colonel Haki. How I cheered; the definitely sinister, even if apparently on the side of the angels, Turkish Secret Service high-up, whom everyone is rightly nervous of, also featured in The Mask Of Dimitrios.
In order to confound his known would be murderer, Haki arranges for Graham to be smuggled out of the country via a small cheap passenger ship. And, unsurprisingly what we have is an espionage orientated version of that wonderful classic – the country house murder. That is, a group of people holed up inescapably together. Wrongdoing, we know, is on the cards, there is at least one murderer, but everyone will turn out, probably, to be not quite who they seem to be, so, everyone is potentially suspect. And our hero, who has breezed through life in many ways like an innocent schoolboy, makes that journey into fear.
The book was later turned into a film starring Joseph Cotten as Graham (the English engineer became American), Dolores del Rio as the nightclub dancer Josette, a the vamp with a heart of……well, we aren’t quite sure, really, and Orson Welles as Colonel Haki. Certain liberties were inevitably taken, but I like this take on the initial murder attempt on Graham (much more mundanely done in the book)
Where this book differs from the domestic murder mystery is of course the involvement of the wider stage – the machinery of war, all who profit by it and the nations engaged in it.
There are some almost predictable red herrings, real sharks, wolves in sheep’s clothing and vice-versa, but all is done with panache, enjoyable tension, most masterfully. Our gathering of passengers on the ship is as satisfyingly memorable and eccentric a bunch as could be wished for.
This is one which should delight the aficionados of both old fashioned murder mysteries, and political/espionage thrillers alike. I shall read yet more Ambler, and sincerely hope to encounter Colonel Haki (shivers nervously) again.
4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5 – only because I do prefer Charles Latimer, the urbane, witty central character of The Mask of Dimitrios as a more amusing quicker witted companion than the more innocent Graham