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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.

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Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Sympathetic SinnerThe Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

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