Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Abdel Simpson’

Dirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Like many other readers, I finished Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962) wanting to hear more from its neurotic anti-hero Arthur Simpson, the Anglo-Egyptian petty crook who got caught up in a big jewel-robbery in Istanbul. He was a highly engaging character not despite his many flaws but because of them.

Five years later Ambler duly supplied more of Arthur in the novel Dirty Story. I finished it feeling very disappointed: this is a book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if I hadn’t already read The Light of Day. But I had and I could see that Ambler had ruined one of his best characters by putting him in entirely the wrong setting. Arthur is a man of the city; Dirty Story puts him into the African jungle. He’s not a man of action; Dirty Story makes him into an armed mercenary. The incongruity is too big, unlike his involuntary transformation from petty crook to jewel-robber in The Light of Day. That incongruity was entertaining and made you feel sympathy for him. But Arthur as a mercenary?

No, it doesn’t work. Nor does the twist whereby, as in The Light of Day, he makes it out with a whole skin and a new ambition. But the book started promisingly. Arthur is back in Greece and wants a new passport. He gets into big debt to pay for it and has to work off the debt by becoming an assistant on a pornographic film. Helped by a thuggish and unstable Frenchman called Goutard, he recruits actresses for the film from Madame Irma, the madame who appeared in The Light of the Day. But Goutard tries to lure the girls away to a new brothel and Madame Irma is understandably annoyed. She denounces both Arthur and Goutard to the Greek police and they have to flee the country together on a ship.

Arthur is back in the soup again: he’s lost his home in Athens and his attractive young Greek wife and has no prospect of getting them back. After all, he has no real right to live in Greece and no real nationality: that was why he was trying to buy himself a new passport. He and Goutard end up in Djibouti, where the authorities give them a week to get out or get into big trouble. And now there’s one last chance for Ambler to supply a worthy sequel to The Light of Day. Arthur is wondering what he can do next:

Aden was only one-hundred-and-fifty miles away by sea across the Bab el Mandeb strait. I thought that if I could get to Aden I might be able to land a job as a steward on one of the boats that stopped there. They didn’t know me in Aden, and anyway it was a busier port than Djibouti. I had no union card, of course, or seaman’s papers, but I thought that some of the cargo liner captains might not be too particular about that if they happened to be short-handed. (Book I, ch. 6)

Who knows what interesting adventures he could have had working as a steward on a holiday liner? He could have got involved in smuggling or a ship-wreck, become an accidental hero, even had another run-in with the jewel-robbers of The Light of Day. But he doesn’t become a steward and none of that happens. Instead, Goutard, a veteran of wars in Algeria and Indo-China, helpfully finds him work as a mercenary for a mining firm in an unnamed African country.

Arthur has given him a false impression of his own military experience, you see: “Of course I am not, strictly speaking, an old soldier, but because of my father I sometimes feel like one.” The job doesn’t seem too bad: he’s told it will involve “showing some stupid macaques how to secure and protect a strip of land” (macaque, literally a kind of monkey, is coarse French slang for a member of the Black Community). In fact, it will involve a lot more than that and although Arthur won’t have to fight, he will have to operate a radio while bullets are flying.

Because he’s operating a radio, he gets a chance to betray his employers to a rival mining company. By then, he isn’t a good character any more. He is out of his milieu and there are no fascinating glimpses into an exotic culture and its history, as there had been in The Light of Day. I finished the book no longer caring about Arthur and no longer wanting to hear more about him. Dirty Story may have inspired Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974), which is also about mercenaries, mining and double-crosses in Africa, but The Dogs of War is a far better book. Forsyth doesn’t have Ambler’s sophistication or subtlety, but he can tell a rattling good yarn and the technical details of The Dogs of War are much more interesting.

So read Dogs, not Dirty. If you liked The Light of Day, I doubt that you’ll like Dirty Story. I certainly didn’t and I’d prefer to see it as an apocryphal Gospel, purporting to be by Arthur but really by an imposter. But there are glimpses of what might have been here and in 2017 there’s even more pathos in the bathos of a dialogue right at the beginning. Arthur is trying to get a British passport and is being interviewed by “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens”:

“This states that your name is Arthur Abdel Simpson, that you were born in Cairo, Egypt, on October the sixteenth, nineteen hundred and ten.”

“I know what it states.”

“It also says that you are the son of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Arthur Thomas Simpson of the Army Service Corps and his wife Mrs Rhita Simpson whose maiden name is given as Rhita Fahir.”

“What of it? My mother was Egyptian.”

He put the photostat down. “Quite so. But she was not married to your father.”

“That is a despicable lie.” I was still calm. “The certificate was signed by the Adjutant of my father’s regiment.”

“No doubt. Possibly he didn’t read what he was signing very carefully.” Sneering all the time. “Possibly he didn’t read it at all. As Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant your father probably gave him a great many papers to sign.”

“My father was an officer and a gentleman,” I protested angrily.

“He became an officer certainly.” (Book I, ch. 1)

Note the first line of dialogue: Arthur was born in 1910. If he were a real person, the storm-and-stress of his life would be long over by now. I doubt that he would have made it past the 1980s. Indeed, you could say he was killed off in Dirty Story. But he still lives and breathes in The Light of Day and readers must still finish that book wanting to hear more from him. I haven’t re-read it since finishing Dirty Story and I’ll be interested to see what this apocryphal Gospel has done to my appreciation of the real thing. Improved it, I hope.

Read Full Post »

The Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

I first read this as an old paperback picked up in a charity shop. It was a book-of-the-film with a photograph of Peter Ustinov as the protagonist on the back cover. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the film and I wasn’t expecting much from the book. Why should I have been? It was just another cheap paperback bought out of idle interest.

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read. The first-person narrator is Arthur Simpson, a neurotic, devious tourist-guide and petty crook living in Athens. He’s in his fifties and has bad breath and a paunch. He bears grudges, steals from his clients whenever he can, and has no redeeming qualities except his candour. But the more he reveals about himself and his past – from the anonymous notes he sent to get teachers in trouble at school to the indigestion he suffers whenever he foolishly gets himself into trouble again – the more you’re on his side. He’s a highly flawed but sympathetic character. You’ll finish this book not just wishing him well but wishing there were more books to read about him (according to the introduction, he appears again in Dirty Story, 1967).

He reminds me of two other flawed but sympathetic characters: George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman, a cowardly Victorian war-hero, and Anthony Burgess’s Nabby Adams, an alcoholic policeman in British Malaya. Flashman cheats and scampers his way through a long and entertaining series. Adams appears in only one book and like Arthur he leaves you wanting more. Burgess intended him to stand for the human race: he’s like our sinful, suffering forefather Adam, who is a prophet, or nabi, in the Muslim tradition. But Nabby lives to drink; Arthur isn’t sure why he lives at all:

I have often thought of killing myself, so that I wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember any more, so that I could rest; but then I have always started worrying in case this after-life they preach about really exists. It might turn out to be even bloodier than the old one. (ch. 7)

He muses like that half-way through the unwanted adventure that takes him from life as a tourist-guide in Athens to life as a criminal conspirator in Ankara. He’s being blackmailed, you see, by a tourist he tried to cheat and rob. The tourist, who’s going under the name Harper, turns out to be much cleverer and more dangerous than he seemed. He catches Arthur in the very act of stealing traveller’s cheques from his luggage, beats him up a little, then forces him to write a confession for the Greek police. Unless Simpson follows orders, the confession will put him in jail.

The orders are that he must drive a large American car to Ankara on behalf of a Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, who will meet him there and pay him for his work. Of course, he suspects that he’s being used to smuggle something into Turkey, so he carefully checks the car before he tries to cross the Turkish border. He finds nothing and tries to cross the border. That’s when his unwanted adventure really turns unpleasant: by the end of chapter two, Ambler has skilfully brought a petty crook into a big criminal conspiracy.

Or rather: he’s skilfully brought the reader into realizing, with a sudden shock, that the petty crook is in a big criminal conspiracy. Arthur was entangled as soon as Harper caught him with the traveller’s cheques at the end of chapter one. Ignorance, deception and self-delusion are important parts of this book: that’s why it’s called The Light of Day. Arthur often reveals more than he means to about himself, but he stays sympathetic. So do the other characters in the book: like Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959), you understand why everyone acts as they do. And like Passage of Arms, exotic cultures are brought to life for English-speaking readers. Ambler seems to know Turkey and Greece from the inside.

And Egypt too. That’s where Arthur was born, as he reveals at the beginning:

My correct name is Arthur Simpson.

No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British. (ch. 1)

No, he’s not British to the core: he’s selfish to the core. But you understand why and you sympathize with his rootlessness and his failures. After his father dies an army charity pays for his education in England, then he returns to Egypt to work with his mother in the restaurant she apparently owns. Things go wrong and he ends up in Athens, married to Nicki, an attractive younger woman who he thinks will leave him sooner or later. She’s attractive by his standards anyway, but not by Harper’s, as Arthur learns when he takes Harper to the club where his wife is still working as a dancer:

They have candles on the tables at the Club and you can see faces. When the floor show came on, I watched him watch it. He looked at the girls, Nicki among them, as if they were flies on the other side of a window. I asked him how he liked the third from the left – that was Nicki.

“Legs too short,” he said. “I like them with longer legs. Is that the one you had in mind?”

“In mind? I don’t understand, sir.” I was beginning to dislike him intensely.

He eyed me. “Shove it,” he said unpleasantly. (ch. 1)

Arthur’s dislike helps explain why he decides to try and steal some of Harper’s traveller’s cheques: as he says elsewhere, he always likes to get his own back. He also needs money because he’s struggling to pay the rent on his and Nicki’s flat.

But he badly underestimates Harper, which is why he ends up in Ankara. The conspiracy under way there is to steal jewels from the Topkapi, the museum in the old Sultans’ palace that gave its name to the film version of this book. The conspirators – Harper, his lover Fräulein Lipp and a boorish German-speaker called Fischer – are staying in an old house on the Bosphorus while they complete their plans. Arthur, who has acquired another and worse blackmailer by now, persuades them to employ him as a driver and guide to Ankara. They think the signed confession keeps him safely under their thumb. In fact, he’s under someone else’s thumb, which is why he has to spy on them.

But while he’s spying on them, he’s also observing the other servants in the house: an old Turkish couple called the Hamuls, who work as caretakers, and a Turkish-Cypriot chef called Geven. After Arthur himself, these three are in some ways the most interesting characters in the book. Like Evelyn Waugh, Ambler could make characters live and breathe on the page. But Waugh wouldn’t have been interested in Turkish-speaking servants in Ankara. Ambler definitely is and so is Arthur, partly because Geven, although “a good cook”, also “gets drunk and attacks people.”

Arthur doesn’t want to get on Geven’s bad side. He knows about Geven’s prison sentence for wounding a waiter before he meets him, but Harper and Company don’t. All the same, Harper guesses, with his usual perception, that Geven has been upset by Fischer’s high-handed treatment of him and is not cooking as well for his employers as for his fellow servants: “I’ll bet Arthur eats better than we do. In fact, I know damn well he does.” Arthur is eavesdropping as Harper and Fräulein Lipp are in bed together, making “the beast with two backs” (ch. 8). He’s already frightened of Harper; now he’s jealous too, because Fräulein Lipp is very attractive, with “long legs and slim thighs”.

In the end, it will be Harper who wishes he’d never met Simpson, but Arthur isn’t counting his blessings on the final page. He’s too neurotic for that and too full of resentments and grudges. I didn’t think the final page works. Nor does the climax of the book, as Arthur unwillingly joins the jewel-robbery. What worked for me were the glimpses into both the high politics and the low culture of Turkey: the importance of Atatürk, on the one hand, and the boozing of an unstable Turkish-Cypriot chef on the other. Arthur knows little Turkish, but Geven speaks English because of his time in Cyprus:

He drained the glass again and leaned across the chopping table breathing heavily. “I tell you,” he said menacingly; “if that bastard says one more word, I kill him.”

“He’s just a fool.”

“You defend him?” The lower lip quivered.

“No, no. But is he worth killing?”

He poured himself another drink. Both lips were working now, as if he had brought another thought agency into play in order to grapple with the unfamiliar dilemma my question had created.

The Hamuls arrived just then to prepare for the service of the evening meal, and I saw the old man’s eyes take in the situation. He began talking to Geven. He spoke a country dialect and I couldn’t even get the drift of what he was saying; but it seemed to improve matters a little. Geven grinned occasionally and even laughed once. (ch. 8)

The country dialect isn’t enough, as Geven shortly demonstrates. But Ambler has created a world that lives on the page. Like Burgess he was interested in foreign languages, not just foreign cultures, and he could use them to heighten the realism of his stories. Arthur is a hybrid man who’s always on the outside of what he’s observing, because he doesn’t truly belong anywhere: not Egypt, not England, not Greece or Turkey. He starts this sentence like an Englishman, but the memory he reveals isn’t at all English:

The day Mum died, the Imam came and intoned verses from the Koran: “Now taste the torment of the fire you called a lie.” (ch. 10)

Ambler knew about Islam too and in some ways The Light of Day is even more relevant today than it was when it was first published in 1962. Turkey is still a land of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, but the balance of power has shifted drastically. Arthur is told something that Atatürk is supposed to have said shortly before he died: “If I can live another fifteen years, I can made Turkey a democracy. If I die sooner, it will take three generations.” That was in 1938 and three generations have passed now. Atatürk’s dream is dead: Islam has re-asserted itself and Atatürk is no longer a Turkish hero.

So there’s even more irony in The Light of Day than Ambler intended. I think he would have liked that. History and human beings are complex. There isn’t just one world: there are as many worlds as there are people. Lives and cultures are both separate and interwoven. At their best, Ambler’s books convey all that better than any other books I know. And this may be the best of the best: The Light of Day is a very clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. As I said about Passage of Arms: it’s good that this edition was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Read Full Post »