Uncommon Danger, by Eric Ambler
It was John Self of The Asylum who alerted me to Eric Ambler through his review of Ambler’s Journey into Fear. I’m not a fan of the thriller genre, but I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré and Deighton and Ambler is something of a precursor to both of them.
From late September through October this year I was exceptionally busy at work. I needed a book that would be fast moving and easy to read but gripping even when I was tired. I reached for the Ambler that had sat on my shelves for the five years since John’s review. It was a good choice.
Uncommon doesn’t leap straight into the action. Instead it features a brief prologue set in a London-based oil company boardroom. The CEO wants access to Romanian oil fields, but needs political change to achieve it. He calls in a Colonel Robinson, who despite his name is quite clearly no Englishman…
The story then shifts to Kenton, a freelance journalist who’s just blown his savings in an ill-judged card game. Desperate, he buys a ticket to Vienna on the Orient Express hoping he can borrow some money from an old acquaintance once he gets there. Like most decent thriller writers Ambler is strong on description, and particularly on description of luxury:
He had been waiting for three-quarters of an hour when the Night Orient Express from Ostend came in, flecked with melting snow. Behind the steamy windows of the coaches, braided waiters hurried towards the first class restaurant car. He heard the clatter of dishes and the clink of glasses. From where he stood out of the wind he could see a destination board on the side of one of the sleeping cars – Wien, Buda-Pesth, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul. The Orient Express looked warm and luxurious inside and he was glad when it moved out. At that moment it seemed to epitomize all the security and comfort – bodily, financial and gastronomic – that he craved. He wallowed in self-pity.
Evocative isn’t it? Kenton finds himself sharing his carriage with one other traveller, Sachs:
His face was narrow and he had the kind of jowl that should be shaved twice a day, but isn’t. He wore a dirty starched collar with a huge grey-flowered tie and a crumpled dark-striped suit. On his knees rested a limp American cloth attaché-case from which he was extracting paper bags containing sausage and bread. A bottle of Vichy water stood propped against the back of the seat beside him.
Kenton hasn’t eaten so he’s grateful when Sachs shares his food, but for all his generosity Sachs doesn’t seem wholly trustworthy and as they approach the border he becomes increasingly nervous. Soon Sachs asks Kenton if he minds carrying a package over the border for him. He’ll pay well now and more on the other side. Kenton knows it stinks, but he’s desperate so he takes the deal.
It’s no spoiler to say that Sachs doesn’t survive long. Kenton finds himself on the run suspected of Sachs’ murder and pursued both by Russian intelligence and by the sinister “Colonel Robinson”, who is quickly revealed to be the notorious professional assassin and agent-provocateur Saridza.
Ambler doesn’t mess around and by about page 26 the broad outlines of the plot and the key players are all fairly well set out. There are details to be filled in (quite why the photos Kenton discovers in Sachs’ package matter so much), but even those you can take a pretty good guess at. The package is a classic McGuffin. The real interest is in the chase.
Uncommon Danger does have some great characters. Kenton himself I found a bit bland, but I loved the main Russian agent Zaleshoff who “rarely said what he really thought without making it sound like a clumsy attempt to dissemble. Passionate conviction was with him a sign of indifference to the point at issue.” Zaleshoff is aided by his beautiful sister, Tamara, and naturally a romance starts to bloom between her and Kenton (though it feels a bit tacked on to be honest, but at least Ambler doesn’t spend much time on it).
On the other side of the equation Saridza makes a convincing adversary, even if he does at one point literally leave Kenton and Zaleshoff to apparent certain death after gloating to them both about his plans. Quite why he didn’t just shoot them was never entirely clear to me, save that if he had the book would have ended there…
Saridza is assisted by the brutal and sadistic Captain Mailler, formerly of the black-and-tans. While Saridza’s in it for the money Mailler seems to like working in the shadows because of the freedom it gives him to hurt people. There’s a definite element of Bond villain and henchman here which surely must have influenced Fleming (not least when, for a second time, someone gives key information to Kenton on the basis that it won’t matter now as there’s nothing he can do to stop them…)
As well as all that there’s gunfights, tense escapes past border-guards, thrilling chase sequences, all the sorts of things you’d expect. The ingredients are pretty familiar but Ambler puts them together well (and, to be fair, helped make them the standards that they are today).
What’s less usual here is the politics. Later writers draw on the Cold war and conflicts of nations. Governments are the key actors. For Ambler governments are as much puppets as Kenton himself. The real power is big business.
Saridza is working for a UK oil company. His goal is to destabilise Romania and he plans to do this by leaking Russian secrets to them (again, all by page 26). The Russians are reactive. Without corporate interests none of this would be happening and for Ambler that’s true of the whole shadow game:
One end of the game was played in the rarified atmosphere of board-rooms and weekend shooting parties; the other was played, with persons like Sachs as counters, in trains, in cheap hotels, in suburbs of big cities, in murky places away from the bright highways dedicated to the rosy-cheeked goddess of tourisme.
There’s an appealing and for me fairly persuasive cynicism here. In Ambler’s Europe those at the top take decisions without looking too closely at how they’ll be implemented, then men like Saridza take whatever steps are necessary to make those decisions happen. Saridza isn’t so stupid as to report back his methods, and his bosses aren’t so stupid as to ask him. The world goes on, possibly with fewer people in it, and profits are made. As Ambler observes “The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules.”
Plus ça change. Uncommon Danger was first published back in 1937 and you would think that would date it. In fact, despite the use of elements such as the Orient Express, Soviet agents and the now distant pre-war setting Ambler’s exploration of corporations as drivers of conflict makes it more timely than you might expect and perhaps more relevant than the later fiction he helped inspire.
None I’m aware of, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.