Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books: Friday, June 21, 2013

Next week is Elmore Leonard week. Please consider sending a review along. 

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.

Ed Gorman is the author of the Dev Conrad and Sam McCain series of books You can find him here.


A few times a week Keith Olbermann runs stories about Dumb Criminals. Ignorant and/or Stupid people doing stupid things. The stories never involve anybody being killed.

In a certain way the narrator of The Postman Rings Twice has always struck me as deserving of a slot on the Olbermann show. Of course he went a little beyond being stupid. He killed somebody.

What Bloch has done is write a journal authored by one of these people, in this case an arrogant murderous drifter who constantly calls attention to his own supposed genius. He latches on to a nineteen-year-old maid who falls so blindly in love with him that she reulctantly agrees to help him kidnap her charge, the four-year-old daughter of a very decent wealthy couple.

The book worked on me in two serious ways. It made me examine my own class anger, number one. The slickie who tells this story believes that he has the right to hurt anyone who has more than he does. Two or three times he makes a passionate case for this. I remembered that in the sixties when an ROTC building was torched by demonstrators in Iowa City how sickened I was by the jubiliation the street. Rich or poor doesn't make any difference. Pigs is pigs. I grew up in a union family and generally agreed that American workers were exploited (if only we could have seen then just how exploited they would be a few decades later). But as always there were a few guys who had to push too far, never understanding that they were in the process of becoming very much like their enemy and the rent-a-cops who bullied them on the picket lines.

Number two is the realism of its setting, especially the first act which involves the narrator working in a factory and heading out for taverns after work. Bloch gets it down just right, a slice of Brit Kitchen Sink drama (Sunday Night and Sunday Morning told but told by a sociopathic murderer) before the Brits caught on to it.

The plot goes over the top a few times, yes, but somehow that only enhances the delusionary tone of the killer. He is a superior being therefore his entire life is over the top. No mere mortal can claim that.

I see so many crime stories on the tube that push me to wishing I was in favor of capital punishment. Some asshole marches six employees into the back of a supermarket and kills them for less than a grand? Or a wife and her tattoo sleazy boyfriend murder her husband for twenty grand's worth of insurance? Or a suburban Chicago cops kills (allegedly of course) two maybe three wives and peddles his ass on every show that will have him, grinning ghoul every time out?

Somehow all these rotten bastards are in this memoir of a really terrifying guy. No serial killer antics. No booga-bogga. Just hard core pure one hundred per cent evil.

And that's just what Robert Bloch got down in this masterful little novel.

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
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
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)
Juri Nummelin, DARK HOLLOW, John Connolly
James Reasoner, UTE REVENGE, Paul Ledd
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


Anonymous said...

JOURNEY INTO FEAR and A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS were the two Amblers I read and enjoyed the most. I also remember the movie versions in the mid-40's.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember reading somewhere that The Kidnapper was one of Bloch's favorites from his own work. Ed's review certainly makes me want to read it. On to the TBR list it goes.

Patti--I'll have a review for next week's Leonard FFB. I'll email it to you next week.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny that the name is spelled wrong.

Charles Gramlich said...

Never read "the Kidnapper." I'm not a huge fan of Bloch. Like his stuff OK but am not usually super enthused.

J F Norris said...

Can you please change the link for my FFB post to this one:

According to the Evidence by Henry Cecil


Todd Mason said...


FFB: AGEE ON FILM by James Agee (Modern Library, 2000)

Gerard said...

My literary awards committee reading is done and I'll go pick out a Leonard novel.