Eric Ambler's Revisionist Thrillers: Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and the Intercom Conspiracy
Snyder, Robert Lance, Papers on Language & Literature
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." Subsequently suffering amnesia as the result of an automobile accident, Barstow then virtually becomes the intrepid Carruthers, even down to the detail--if we credit the narrative's controlling third-person voice--of his being said to have "steel-grey eyes" (35). There can be little doubt as to the target of Ambler's lampoon: Barstow qua Carruthers has succumbed to the escapist allure of a bygone era's pulp heroes. The narrator drives the point home by saying, "Free from the fears and the vanities, the blunderings and the short-comings [sic] of ordinary men, he [Carruthers] was of that illustrious company which numbers Sherlock Holmes, Raffles, Arsene Lupin, Bulldog Drummond[,] and Sexton Blake among its members" (30). Included in this wry comment are luminaries of both detective and espionage fiction, but Ambler's first novel looks forward to his later texts by more than just its parodic challenge to traditional characterization in the thriller.
A brief examination of The Dark Frontier may help to substantiate this claim. Although Ambler opined that halfway through the book his original conception went astray (xiii-xiv), he accomplished more than he knew. First, as already implied, in Barstow/Carruthers the former engineer turned novelist fashioned a portrait of considerable psychological complexity, overturning the subgenre's penchant for facile and one-dimensional heroes. Even amoral Simon Groom, the foreign representative of Cator and Bliss who prides himself on taking a "Nietzschean view" of the emerging world trade in nuclear technology (16), achieves individuation as Professor Barstow's antagonist. Second, in his plot of a small Balkan nation's acquiring the expertise for producing an atomic bomb to enhance its geopolitical sway, Ambler realized his stated goal of reinvigorating the thriller by aligning it with "contemporary reality" (xiii). Third, as Michael Denning demonstrates in Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller, Ambler, along with Graham Greene in such "entertainments" as A Gun for Sale (1936), The Confidential Agent (1939), and The Ministry of Fear (1943), introduced "seriousness" into popular fiction by incorporating a dimension of skeptical critique (see also Harper 32-34). This new attribute, contends Denning, takes an identifiably modern form:
It manifests itself [...] as a concern for moral dilemmas, for the ambiguities and uncertainties of ethical behavior, and for the questions of loyalty and betrayal. Unlike earlier thrillers, with their straightforward moral schema which designated hero and villain as good and evil and authorized the actions of the hero by the transcendent value of the nation and his sporting observance of the rules of the game, the "serious" thriller takes as its subject the uncertainty of the authority for the protagonist's actions, the lack of a clear-cut "good," and the ensuing issues of innocence and experience, of identity and point of view. (63)
Significantly, fewer than twenty pages into his novel Ambler invests The Dark Frontier with seriousness by disrupting its mimetic framework via an interpolated set-piece on warmongering, a maneuver that reveals his authorial struggle against the modernist imperative of "impersonal" narration. (4) Adumbrating subtler experiments to come, however, Ambler's larger achievement consists in his revamping the mystery tale's usual structure by strategically compelling the reader's reconstruction of pertinent evidence.
The thriller's architectonics in this regard departs dramatically from that of the classical detective story, rendering questionable Jerry Palmer's claim that "no fundamental difference" exists between these otherwise related forms (106). As many commentators have noted, detective fiction champions the efficacy of logical deduction, projecting a discursive world in which analytical reasoning is adequate to the task of plumbing the aberration of criminality. In the subgenre's "Golden Age" during the late twenties and early thirties, such authors as G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, S. S. Van Dine, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr divided their "whodunits" into two geometric parts. The first, according to Tzvetan Todorov's typology, presents an account of the crime and the second an investigation into its perpetrator(s). The text as a whole thus figured as a parable of reading, the initial part constituting a literary puzzle and the second its solution. (5) The thriller, on the other hand, collapses or "fuses" the detective story's duality (Todorov 47), plunging us into a fictional milieu that is not framed by an antecedent action. Visceral suspense replaces cool-headed ratiocination; prolepsis eclipses, if not entirely supplants, analepsis. (6) As a consequence, in the thriller we are continually searching for a direction while sifting textual clues, whereas in the whodunit we have one established at the outset. If the Golden Age detective story is "cozy," a source of cerebral gratification for the armchair sleuth, the thriller is discomfiting, constantly reconfiguring what Wolfgang Iser calls our "horizon" of expectations in the act of reading (96-99, 111-12).
By way of preparing for an analysis of Ambler's three most successful revisionist thrillers, I wish to enlist the aid of Gerard Genette and David Lodge. Both of these critics, at a time when the terms had fallen into disfavor, sought to rehabilitate the concept of diegesis by exploring its distinction from mimesis in antiquity. Genette thus begins "Boundaries of Narrative," a 1976 translation of "Frontieres du recit" in Figures II (1969), by elaborating on this "primary opposition" for the philosophical forefathers of literary theory (1). In Book III of The Republic, he notes, Plato uses diegesis to signify "simple narrative," whereas mimesis encompasses "imitation properly speaking" (2). Lodge helpfully glosses the difference as involving "the representation of actions in the poet's own voice" versus "the representation of action in the imitated voices of the character or characters" (28). In his Poetics, however, Aristotle construes narrative as one of two genres of poetic imitation, the other being drama, prompting Genette's observation that "from classical origins two contradictory traditions seem to exist whereby narrative would be opposed to imitation as its antithesis or would constitute one of its modes" (2). Given this background, the larger point for Genette and Lodge alike is that diegesis and mimesis, narration and description, or what Wayne C. Booth calls "telling" and "showing," are inseparable in prose fiction from the eighteenth century onwards (3-20). Genette puts the matter succinctly: "Mimesis is diegesis" (5). For his part Lodge, in a book chapter on the subject, (7) suggests how the characteristic readiness of postmodernist novels to expose their own artifices of narratological mediation and invention signals "a revival of diegesis: not smoothly dovetailed with mimesis as in the classic realist text, and not subordinated to mimesis as in the modernist text, but foregrounded against mimesis" (44; italics added).
Although Ambler's The Intercom Conspiracy (1969), owing to its later composition and his intervening years as a screenwriter, (8) exemplifies such diegetic foregrounding more fully than Epitaph for a Spy (1938) or A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), in all three thrillers he is fond of employing such devices of "indirect" or "oblique" narration as characters' reported speech, false surmises, …
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Publication information: Article title: Eric Ambler's Revisionist Thrillers: Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and the Intercom Conspiracy. Contributors: Snyder, Robert Lance - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 45. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2009. Page number: 227+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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