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Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear (1940)---reissued by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (2002) (Phil Abbott)
A few weeks ago, I read a short essay by Ian Rankin on spy fiction. He mentioned Eric Amber as a neglected writer who was largely responsible for elevation of the genre despite the fact that Graham Greeene and John LeCarre now receive most of the credit. Rankin noted that to the extent Amber is mentioned at all, it is for his best-seller A Coffin for Dimitrious, but he contended that many of his earlier works deserved attention. I picked up a used copy of Amber’s A Journey into Fear at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor Michigan. At least based on this one example, Rankin is correct.
Journey into Fear is a subtle examination of European culture and politics at the brink of World War II. Graham, a middle class professional everyman, visits Turkey in order to recommend fortification of its ports in the advent of a German attack. Returning from a nightclub he is slightly wounded as he enters his hotel room. Graham dismisses the incident as a botched burglary, but he is sent to a Colonel Haki at the urging of Turkish friend. Haki informs him that he is a target of assassination by a German agent since he holds the key to an Anglo-Turkish alliance.
The safest way back to London is by train to Genoa and then to on Paris. On board, Graham meets a variety of fellow passengers, any one of whom could be the assassin or in his employ. The structure of the novel bears a resemblance to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, but Amber’s treatment is much more nuanced and complex. There is a seductive nightclub performer, whose show he saw in Istanbul, who attempts to convince him to begin an affair; her openly disreputable Spanish spouse; a Turkish businessman; an aged German archeologist; a pro-fascist French couple.
The interaction among these travelers (where they sit in the dining car, what they drink, how they interpret the upcoming war, their views on communism and fascism, their prejudices) form a masterful delineation of European attitudes in 1940. Graham, the protagonist, is anything but a master of the situation. He tries his best to decode the motivations of the other passengers, but he is frequently incorrect, a result of his own cultural perspectives, his amateur status, and even his own sexual desire. This unreliable narrator is much like a whole pre-war generation.
From the standpoint of a twenty first century reader, Journey into Fear could have used just one more final twist. Nevertheless, on the basis of this one example, Ambler certainly ranks with contemporary espionage writers. Alan Furst, for instance, owes him a great debt.
THE KIDNAPPER, ROBERT BLOCH
Sergio Angelini, THE AXEMAN COMETH, Nev Fountain Joe Barone, FUZZ, Ed McBain
Les Blatt, THE THIN MAN, Dashiell Hammett
Brian Busby, AN EASY PLACE TO DIE, David Montrose
Bill Crider, SELECTED STORIES FROM SCIENCE FICTION'S ADVENTURES IN MUTATION, Groff Conklin
Martin Edwards, NO WALLS OF JASPER, Joanna Cannon
Curt Evans, SOUTHERN ELECTRIC MURDER Francis John Whaley
Jerry House, THE CHRONICLES OF LUCIUS LEFFING, Joseph Payne Brennan
Randy Johnson, SWING LOW, SWING DEAD, Frank Gruber
George Kelley, THE CHINESE BELL MURDERS, THE CHINESE MAZE MURDERS, Robert Van Gulik
Margot Kinberg, THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER, Stuart Palmer
B.F. Lawson, SHROUD OF CANVAS, Isobel Mary Lambet
Evan Lewis, THE DIAMOND WAGER, Samuel Dashiell
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf, WALL OF GUNS, Jim O'Mara
Todd Mason. AGEE ON FILM. James Agee
Stephen Nester, IN DEEP, Bernard Wolfe (THE RAP SHEET)
J.F. Norris, ACCORDING TO THE EVIDENCE, Henry Cecil
Juri Nummelin, DARK HOLLOW, John Connolly
James Reasoner, UTE REVENGE, Paul Ledd
Gerard Saylor, THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, Don Winslow
Michael Slind, THE DANTE CLUB, Matthew Pearl
Kerrie Smith, ANGEL TOUCH, Mike Ripley
Kevin Tipple, SINGULARITY, Kathryn Casey
TomCat, 77 Sunset Strip, Roy Huggins
James Winter, THE HURT MACHINE, Reed Farrel Coleman
And for a review of one of my favorite films of 2013, see CRIMESPREE MAGAZINE