Eric Ambler (born 1909) is considered one of the masters of the thriller novel involving international intrigue and espionage. Of the six novels he wrote before World War II, four have been adjudged outstanding examples of the genre.
Eric Ambler was born in London on June 28, 1909. In 1927 and 1928 he served as an engineering apprentice, providing background material for the engineer-protagonists who appear in many of his novels. He left engineering to become an actor and then an advertising copywriter, a position he held until 1937, when he became a full-time writer.
Ambler's first novel, The Dark Frontier, was published in 1936, and the second, Background to Danger, the following year. In his third novel, Cause for Alarm, published in 1938, he utilized many of the themes that were to recur in his later works. It is the story of Nicholas Marlow, a British production engineer who is sent to Italy as his firm's representative. His work is especially important to the Italian government, then allied with Germany, because his firm has been supplying high-speed automatic machines for artillery shell production. Marlow's predecessor in the job has allegedly died at the hands of a hit-and-run driver, but actually was murdered.
In Milan Marlow meets a general who claims to be an agent of Yugoslavia, but is actually a spy for Germany, and a Russian agent. Marlow deliberately allows himself to be lured into a scheme to furnish the details of his company's transactions, but the Italian secret police find out about his reports to the general and he becomes a wanted man. He then escapes to Yugoslavia.
In his book of criticism, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons notes, "After World War I began, spy stories became unequivocally nationalist in tone and Right-wing in political sympathy." Ambler, however, changed all that when he "infused warmth and political colour into the spy story by using it to express a left-wing point of view." Symons further observes, "Almost all of the best thrillers are concerned, in one form or another, with the theme of the hunted man." The last third of Cause for Alarm is about the attempts to arrest Marlow before he can escape over the border. This portion of the novel also involves a third feature of Ambler's fiction, his interest in "the difficulty of moving from place to place."
Also in 1938 Ambler published Epitaph for a Spy, about a foreign language teacher in a Paris school who inadvertently becomes involved in an international intrigue.
In 1939 Ambler published his finest novel, A Coffin for Dimitrios. It tells of the attempt by Charles Latimer, a British lecturer in political economy who writes detective stories as an avocation, to trace the history of Dimitrios Talat, who has led a career of murder, theft, and betrayal throughout Europe. Latimer comments on Dimitrios, "It was useless to explain him in terms of Good and Evil … Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town." Symons judges this "[h] is finest book of this period, … in which flashback follows flashback."
The following year Ambler published Journey into Fear, another demonstration of his expert technique. Most of the novel takes place in the static environment of a small ship bound from Turkey to Greece to Italy. The triggerman in this novel exemplifies what Symons wrote about Ambler's killers in Critical Occasions. He states, "The agents and spies involved on both sides are menacing and unpleasant, but not very important men. They murder casually, without any particular passion."
Ambler served in the British Army from 1940 to 1946; he enlisted in the artillery, saw action in North Africa and Italy, and then was named assistant director of army kinematography for the War Office. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Bronze Star.
While in the army he joined with Peter Ustinov to write the screenplay for The Way Ahead in 1944 and then wrote United States in 1945. On his release from military service he collaborated with David Lean and Stanley Haynes on the screenplay for One Woman's Story in 1949. Highly Dangerous and Encore were written for film in 1951, the same year he published his first novel in 11 years, Judgment on Deltchev.
In the 1950s he was more active as a screenwriter than as a novelist. He wrote the screenplays for The Magic Box (1952), The Promoter (1952), Shoot First (1953), The Cruel Sea (1953), nominated for an Academy Award, Lease of Life (1955), The Purple Plain (1955), Battle Hell (1957), and A Night to Remember (1958). In fiction he produced The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) and State of Siege (1956), generally considered his best postwar novel. The novel follows the story of an engineer in Sunda, an emerging nation between the Dutch East Indies and Malaysia, who is caught up in a coup d'état that fails (as it is supposed to fail).
The decade of the 1960s saw Ambler active in the novel again, as he wrote A Passage of Arms (1960), The Light of Day (1963), awarded an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America, A Kind of Anger (1964), Dirty Story (1967), and The Intercom Conspiracy (1969). He also published the essay collection The Ability to Kill in 1963. Furthermore, he wrote screenplays for The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1960) and Topkapi, based on The Light of Day (1964); he ended his screenwriting with Love, Hate, Love (1970).
Besides his other work, Ambler joined with Charles Rodda under the joint pen name of Eliot Reed to produce three novels. Their works include Skytip (1950), Tender to Danger (1951), and the The Maras Affair (1953). In addition to The Light of Day, four of his novels have been made into movies: Journey into Fear (1942), Background to Danger (1943), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), and Epitaph for a Spy, filmed as Hotel Reserve (1944).
Ambler produced four novels after 1970: The Levanter (1972), Doctor Frigo (1974), The Siege of the Villa Lipp (1977), and The Care of Time (1981).
He received many honors, including the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was given the Order of the British Empire in 1981. Critical opinion of Ambler is best summarized in the words of author Graham Greene, who calls him "our greatest thriller writer."
Further Reading on Eric Ambler
Here Lies: An Autobiography was published in 1986. Comments on his work can be found in Critical Occasions (1966) and Bloody Murder (1972), both by Julian Symons, and in Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft (1968).