Eric Ambler's Revisionist Thrillers: Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and the Intercom Conspiracy

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Below a grainy photograph of the author, then eighty years old, the back dust jacket of Mysterious Press's 1990 revised hardcover edition of Eric Ambler's The Dark Frontier (1936), the first of his eighteen novels, proclaims that he "virtually created the modern espionage story." More than a decade later, copywriters for Black Lizard paperback reprints of ten other Ambler texts, all published in the Vintage Crime series, (1) hedged their bet with a boilerplate caption averring that he "is often said to have invented the modern suspense novel" and thereby "paved the way for [...] John [l]e Carre, Len Deighton, and Robert Ludlum." Allowing for the hyperbole to which such blurbs are notoriously prone, their different ways of categorizing Ambler's fiction suggest his work's elusive quality. In 1972, emphasizing the murky taxonomy of popular subgenres, Julian Symons argued that "the detective story, along with the police story, the spy story, and the thriller, makes up part of the hybrid creature we call sensational literature" (4). Whether we regard Ambler's achievement as a permutation of the nineteenth-century adventure tale or novel of intrigue, he remains undervalued as a surprisingly cunning craftsman of narrative technique.

The few scholars who have discussed Ambler at length concur that, as World War II approached, he intentionally set out to transform the conventional thriller that had ensured widespread success for such precursors as John Buchan, Dornford Yates, and particularly E. Phillips Oppenheim, the prolific and self-styled "prince of storytellers." (2) During the thirties their subgenre's reputation was none too high. "Unlike classical detective novels," observes Peter Lewis, "most thrillers did not possess even a modicum of literary respectability and were generally regarded as true pulp" (11). What Ambler found especially repugnant in Oppenheim's productions, as well as those churned out by his numerous imitators, was their predilection for pasteboard heroes and villains caught up in melodramatic plots. (3) From the vantage point of his ironically titled Here Lies: An Autobiography half a century later, Ambler makes clear why, setting out in 1935 to compose The Dark Frontier as a parody, he was convinced that "the thriller had nowhere to go but up" (121):

  It was the villains who bothered me most. Power-crazed or coldly
  sane, master criminals or old-fashioned professional devils, I no
  longer believed a word of them. Nor did I believe in their passions
  for evil and plots against civilization. As for their world
  conspiracies, they appeared to me no more substantial than toy
  balloons, over-inflated and squeaky to the touch, with sad old
  characters rattling about inside like dried peas. The hero did not
  seem to matter much. He was often only a fugitive, a hare to the
  villain's hounds, prepared in the end to turn pluckily and face his
  pursuers. He could be a tweedy fellow with steel-grey eyes and gun
  pads on both shoulders or a moneyed dandy with a taste for adventure.
  He could also be a xenophobic ex-officer with a nasty anti-Semitic
  streak. None of that really mattered. All he really needed to
  function as hero was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman
  resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones. (120-21)

At a time when he was absorbed by the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, what Ambler derogates as "antique fantasies" of "the old secret[-]service adventure thriller" seemed ludicrously superannuated (Dark Frontier xiii). Fueled by an impulse to debunk such stereotypes, his inaugural novel therefore features protagonist Professor Henry J. Barstow, an acclaimed but timid physicist at the University of London who, after an unsought invitation to accept a post as technical adviser to international armaments manufacturer Cator and Bliss, finds himself mesmerized by a potboiler extolling the daring exploits of "Conway Carruthers, Department Y. …