Though this page slumbered for a year or so while I worked on my upcoming novel, Butchertown, other habits continued.
My annual reading of Eric Ambler, pioneer of the modern thriller, continued with Passage of Arms (1960), one of his most complex and convoluted books from his post-WWII period, a more fruitful time than his reputation suggests.
Passage of Arms is the second of Ambler’s novels set in Southeast Asia (after The Nightcomers, aka State of Siege). It weaves together four plotlines: a naïve American businessmen (and his wife) who, out of impulsive juvenile enthusiasm, involves himself in money laundering for gun smugglers; the smugglers themselves and the guerilla groups they supply; the military and intelligence officials, both British and Asian, pursuing the guerillas.
Finally, and most pleasingly, there is Girija, a young Bengali who, unaware of his supporting role in the treacherous drama unfolding around him, dreams only of running his own bus company.
Passage of Arms ticks pleasurably and cleverly away and is more action-packed than other Ambler novels. It’s strewn with his trademark observations about politics in the modern world, ideas that still apply. Along with it is Ambler’s genial sympathy for the innocents caught in the nefarious schemes of the powerful, the criminal, and the desperate. Though things turn out reasonably well–and only reasonably--anxiety and unease remain with us always.
Passage of Arms may best represent the polar opposite of Ambler’s beginnings as a fire-breathing, idealistic young Socialist in the 1930s. Happy to say though, once the face of Communism and Stalin were revealed he resisted racing off to the extreme right, become one of those apostates, a convert to yet another crude, tyrannical idiot-ology in a bloody quest for perfection.
Rather, Ambler seems to have become a sensible bloke with his decency remaining intact. In these later novels, all ideology is suspect. To paraphrase one critic, Ambler acts as a guide through our fearful, uncertain era. These novels are tales of human blundering and irresponsibility. stories of people as they are, immutably strange, both their motives and the consequences of their twisting schemes beyond perfect understanding.
It’s said that a good book is one that can be read twice. And so it happened I recently reread Ambler’s next novel, his Edgar-award winning The Light of Day (1962), which I first read several years ago, shortly after seeing its celebrated—and mostly faithful--adaptation, the 1964 heist film Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin. The film is a rare example of an adaptation that remains true to the spirit of its source while standing well on its own.
The Light of Day was definitely worth a second read. It’s a rare and welcome foray into the comic novel. Here, Ambler turns away from the Innocent at Large to tell the story of one Arthur Abdel Simpson. Arthur Simpson is a perfect louse: a misanthropic scam artist, thief, pornographer, and cunning weasely coward: half Egyptian, half-British, adding up to little. With his invalid passport, he’s a nowhere man, even among the efficient, hard-nosed den of thieves who blackmail him into joining a heist.
Simpson is a “rogue hero”, a shabby half-cousin to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and Richard Stark’s Parker—half-cousin because he’s nowhere near as sharp or ruthless as they are. (He’s more like a brother to Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman from the Breaking Bad universe.) His sins drape over his rounded shoulders like a damp woolen blanket.
Actor Peter Ustinov played Simpson perfectly in his Oscar-winning performance in Topkapi and maybe has the best take on him:
“The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses. Simpson is the kind of man who wears blazers a little too consistently, the kind with military presumptions, who has to belong to a cricket club. He's a man who hovers between the more reprehensible columns of The News of the World and oblivion."
Simpson is the lowlife friend your mother hated, the hero every writer’s group in the world demands you cut from your novel (or else rewrite as a puppy-snuggling vegan Progressive). He’s “unsympathetic”; an affront to the delicate sensibilities of conservatives and liberals alike.
And I, of course, absolutely loved him.
The Light of Day is one of Ambler’s best from his later years. It’s edgier and darker than the brightly colored film, but genuinely witty and suspenseful as it twists, turns and reverses course through the twisting alleys of mid-twentieth century Istanbul, which comes vividly alive. It handles some of the plot aspects better than the film, while the film portrays the central heist to ingenious and dazzling effect. See the film, read the book or go the other way, you won’t go wrong.
Photo by author
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield