Tag Archives: Eric Ambler

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

Goodwill oozed from him like sweat.

The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler

The Mask of Dimitrios was first published in 1939. It portrays a Europe in which politics, crime and big business are inextricably intertwined; one in which real power is often exercised out of sight and the news the public reads is never more than half the story.

How far we’ve come!

Latimer, a reasonably successful English crime writer, is on holiday in Turkey when he meets the slightly sinister Colonel Haki of Turkish intelligence at a party. The Colonel asks Latimer to call upon him the next day and it turns out that like so many people Latimer meets he has an idea for a book that he wants to pitch.

The book idea is terrible, but in the course of the conversation the Colonel mentions how real crime is so much messier than literary crime, and to illustrate his point he takes Latimer to the morgue and shows him the body of a murdered man. That man is Dimitrios, stabbed in the stomach and pulled dead from the sea.

The death of Dimitrios allows the Turkish police to close their file on him – a file which includes allegations of murder, political assassination and a host of other crimes. Dimitrios has been sought after for years but eluded all attempts at capture. Now he lies on a slab with nothing to his name but an identity card sewn into his cheap suit.

Latimer is intrigued and decides as a sort of hobby project to discover more about Dimitrios. He sets out to retrace his steps, learn about his life and in doing so perhaps understand what forces and experiences create such a man.

I often say that any book is allowed one “gimme”. In Mask it’s that Latimer pursues this pet project far longer than is remotely sensible. It’s a device; you just have to accept it.

Latimer’s investigation takes him across Europe, from Istanbul through Athens, Smyrna, Sofia, Geneva and Paris. Along the way he meets an aging brothel-keeper, a retired Polish spy, various journalists and criminals and most notably a man named Mr Peters. Peters joins Latimer on a train journey, seemingly by accident. Here Ambler describes Latimer’s first impression of Peter’s face:

There was the sort of sallow shapelessness about it that derives from simultaneous over-eating and under-sleeping. From above two heavy satchels of flesh peered a pair of pale blue, bloodshot eyes that seemed to be permanently weeping. The nose was rubbery and indeterminate. The lips were pallid and undefined, seeming thicker than they really were. Pressed together over unnaturally white and regular false teeth, they were set permanently in a saccharine smile.

Peters is a sanctimonious sort full of cod-theology and long-winded rhetoric. He makes a tedious train companion but at least once you get off you’ve no reason ever to see him again. So Latimer thinks anyway…

As he pursues the trail of Dimitrios, Latimer finds himself slowly piecing together both the man’s history and his world. It’s a kind of twisted mirror-Europe to the one Latimer thought he inhabited. A world in which banks such as the Eurasian Credit Trust hire assassins to fund coups so as to serve their own business interests. It’s a world in which a lot of people still seem very interested in Dimitrios.

As for the Eurasian Credit Trust by the way, we never meet anyone directly employed by it and yet there’s a sense that it’s the real villain in this story:

‘It is registered in Monaco which means not only that it pays no taxes in the countries in which it operates, but also that its balance sheet is not published and that it is impossible to find out anything about it. There are lots more like that in Europe. Its head office is in Paris, but it operates in the Balkans. Amongst other things it finances the clandestine manufacture of heroin in Bulgaria for illicit export.’

When it works Mask works very well indeed. The problem is that it starts very slowly. The framing device isn’t that interesting and Latimer is intentionally something of a void since his only function is to be a viewpoint character introducing the reader to Ambler’s Europe.

Colonel Haki is fun and so are the rest of the supporting cast, but it takes a while before you meet most of them and in the early stages there’s an awful lot of Latimer travelling to places, looking up records and digging out information from vaguely unhelpful clerks. I found that part of the story reasonably interesting, but it’s fair to say that the pages weren’t exactly turning themselves.

Once you hit the half-way mark it picks up considerably, not so much in pace (almost all the book is basically a paper chase into events that happened years before) but in depth. Dimitrios’ life starts to emerge from the shadows and the impact he had on others becomes increasingly apparent. Peters recurs and Latimer starts to realise that information which to him is a matter of quixotic curiosity might be something that others would be willing to steal or kill for.

Ambler has a nice turn of phrase and I enjoyed the at times very English tone of the novel. Here for example Latimer reflects on one of his increasing number of potential enemies:

A person who searched rooms, brandished pistols, dangled promises of half a million franc fees for nameless services and then wrote instructions to Polish spies might reasonably be regarded with suspicion.

So they might.

As Mask draws to its conclusion Latimer becomes increasingly disillusioned. You can’t look behind the curtain and continue to believe in the wizard after all. He reflects:

The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

But of course the lesson of Ambler is that the truth is always murkier than we think. The world is complex, underlying causes are often obscure, and whenever something significant is happening someone, somewhere is probably making money from it.

One more quote before I wrap up, here mostly to illustrate quite how well Ambler manages to evoke his fractured Europe:

From the balcony outside the window of his room, he could see over the bay to the hills beyond. A moon had risen and its reflection gleamed through the tangle of crane jibs along the quay where the steamers berthed. The searchlights of a Turkish cruiser anchored in the roadstead outside the inner port swung round like long white fingers, brushed the summits of the hills and were extinguished. Out in the harbour and on the slopes above the town pinpoints of light twinkled. A slight, warm breeze off the sea had begun to stir the leaves of a rubber tree in the garden below him. In another room of the hotel a woman laughed. Somewhere in the distance a gramophone was playing a tango. The turntable was revolving too quickly and the sound was shrill and congested.

Isn’t that lovely? And yet, there’s that slight sour note at the end there which cleverly undermines the beauty of the rest of the passage. That’s Ambler, showing us the sour note at the heart of Europe.

Mask had been described to me by some as Ambler’s best novel. It certainly has its moments and the back half is very enjoyable, but the front section does drag at times and I think this does have some structural issues. Persistence does pay off but for me while it was definitely worth reading it’s not as strong as Uncommon Danger and I don’t think the villains are quite as memorable either.

Other reviews

None that I’m aware of in the blogosphere. However, I did see a comment by John Self of The Asylum against an Amazon review where he mentioned he only got 60 pages into this before abandoning it. It’s not a review, but it does suggest he also found the front section a little slow to get going.

19 Comments

Filed under Ambler, Eric, Spy Fiction, Thrillers