Monday, November 29, 2010

Impressions of the I-5

Sorry, only photo I could get this time.

Down the western slopes of California’s Central Valley runs Interstate Highway 5. It’s a journey south my wife, Elizabeth, and I take a couple of times a year to visit her sister and family in Pasadena, California.

The I-5 starts way up north at the Canadian border and runs nearly 1,400 miles south to Mexico, the only U.S. Highway to stretch border to border. The section running through central California, from south of the small valley town of Tracy to Grapevine, is called the Westside Freeway. 


I’ve heard it called the most boring drive in the state, an approximately 200-mile, four-lane ribbon of windswept drear where cars wrestle for road space with menacing truck caravans that sway in the high winds. There’s not much good eating beyond ubiquitous McDenny’s, and tourist snares such as Andersen’s Pea Soup and the famous but overpriced, Harris Ranch. Hell’s Highway.

I don’t quite agree. (Highway 99, in my view, is the road to nowhere, through towns like Turlock, Merced, and Fresno, a litany of strip-mall despair, through areas that are said to be among the most polluted in the United States. I-80, down the East Side of the San Francisco Bay also has little to enchant habitual sightseers. There, the Bay is carefully concealed, so you're not distracted from shopping by nature's intrusive, capital-draining beauty.)

For long sections of its sunlit path under broad skies, Interstate 5 is pleasantly scenic. Elizabeth and I live in the Bay Area and our journey begins about 70 miles east of Emeryville, where East 580 sews itself into the I-5 as it descends from Sacramento. From there, it serenely rides above the Central Valley and below the hills and mountains to the west.

Because it’s a favored commerce route between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the drive does require close attention. Elizabeth, the more confident city driver, handles the chores at either end, while I take most of the long middle section, often with Duke Ellington or Gordon Lightfoot on the stereo.

When not at the wheel, I closely watch how the sunlight plays its splash and trim on the distant hills to my right, their contours like the backs of sleeping animals against the dark blue of the low ragged mountains—what I believe is the Diablo Range--that rise and fall under clear skies.

Most of the nature in the valley below has been gone awhile now, its Iowa-flat, checkered table sunk under a scummy brown mist. While the hills seem soft pillows of untouched gold, various veins of poison have flooded up from the valley below, along with a range of invasive species. By one account, only 1% of the original species of native grass, Nasella puchra, remains anywhere (though occasionally we glimpse the patches of scrub that once dominated the area). A hundred years ago, the north valley lay under a seasonal inland sea upon which ships could sail from the San Joaquin River and bays west. But the sea is gone and only wheeled vehicles roam the valley floor now. I seldom look out that side for too long.

The town of Kettleman City, near the mid-point, is said to suffer from a cluster of birth defects. Responsibility for this has been laid at the door of a company called Chemical Waste Management. I hold my breath a little as we pass through this area, keep my eyes on the hills.

Overall, the central valley seems always sunk in glowering anxiety. It’s the nation’s food basket, but an unnatural field, a gift forced from Nature. Once semi-desert and chaparral, it was ruthlessly dug up for a garden and wears its vegetable raiment uneasily—Nature, or (the farmers in the central and south sections say) the government, is always threatening to take the water away. But water wasn’t really there in reliable quantities before the dams and other huge irrigation projects were built to redirect water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Sierra.

Along the interstate, signs erected to protest government policy a few years ago have drooped and faded. Maybe passions have been dampened by last year’s rains. But, reports say, weather patterns have abruptly flipped from El Nino back to El Nina, promising another dry year. The rains will fade again and, someday, sooner than we realize, be absent too long for things to grow as they have been. Nature has never cared for our status quo. She always bats last.

To some, maybe the world around I-5 never changes, but when I look closely, I notice new things from trip-to-trip. This Thanksgiving, we saw what appeared to be a new water treatment facility south of Tracy. For the first time, I noticed sheep grazing in the fields, looking like clumps of scattered
crumbs. I may have missed them before or this may be a response to changes in the ecological economy.

Near the town of Alpaugh, the mountains fade west while I-5 sinks southeast into the valley. Boredom at lasts set in for a hundred miles or so through towns like Buttonwillow (where Elizabeth and I spent our first honeymoon night at the Super 8 Motel, unaware that area too has its own toxic story) and
nearby Wasco (more about that on the trip back).



There is one unmissable attraction though--the Kern Wildlife Refuge in Kern County: 11,000 acres of wetlands both original and restored. It's a soulful place, especially during an early fall dusk when thousands of birds rise through shafts of sun into purple skies. The only thing wrong with Kern is that it's 15 miles east of the I-5 and local accommodations are laughable.

Finally, we turn toward the mountains again. At Grapevine (named for groves of wild grapes they say still grow along the roadside,) I-5 rises quickly into the wild rugged Tehachapi Mountains and the Angles National Forest. Mostly known as “The Grapevine,” for a few regrettably short miles the
“Ridge Route” is the most scenic part of the drive. The high-desert Tehachapi range may not be high, but it’s brawny, defiantly rugged and gorgeous, especially when storms unfurl across its rocky summits. It beckons to hardy explorers, promising mystery and a Wild West ambiance. There appear to be few roads winding among them and I encourage myself to someday check on that, to explore a little their fabulous ridges and ravines.

This rough beauty doesn’t last long enough. Once past the Angeles National Forest, there’s Castaic, Magic Mountains/Six Flags and so on. The only truly interesting feature I can point to now is William S. Hart Park, the home of the movie’s second great cowboy star after Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart. Located outside of Newhall, his Spanish Colonial Revival-style is a cozy wonder, striking and pleasant to wander in, especially its lovingly tiled wood flooring. Don’t stay too long, or you’ll ask to move in and they’ll say no.

Somewhere in here, the mysterious local custom of appending the article “the” to Freeway names begins: I-5 becomes “the I-5” and U.S. 210 becomes “the 210.” I always feel a foreigner. It may have something to do with Southern California vs. Northern California.

After another fine and pleasant Pasadena Thanksgiving, we left earlier than usual, both because of an approaching storm (which might have closed the Grapevine, as storms do) and an unspoken concern about an adored and elderly friend


Going north, I noticed bales of cotton stacked along the road, next to white-dabbed cotton fields. Once again, as we approached the exit ramp to Wasco, we recalled this is where Jack Nicholson jumps into the back of the open-bed truck to joyfully bang away on an old upright in his 1971 classic Five Easy Pieces. (This also near where Hitchcock filmed Cary Grant being nearly dusted off by the winged assassin in North by Northwest.)

Our sinuses shriveled and eyes teared up as we passed through a methane cloud, past  fenced-in wastelands where unhappy California cows sagged on their feet, their noses in the bare soil (Though occasional beef eaters, we darkly refer to these muddy industrial pens as “cow-centration camps”,
or, even more tastelessly, “Cow-schwitz.” I’m not at all vegetarian, but this I believe: Food animals should always live as good a life as we’d wish for ourselves and should die swiftly.)

Just before our first rest stop, a bit past Buttonwillow, a flock of birds in the distance swam through a blue sky, swirling and whirling, funneling and flying as one in delightful patterns like a school of fish in the sea. We hurriedly parked at the rest stop and leapt out to look closer, but by then their search for food had ended, while our long drive still stretched ahead.


(Re-edited 11/30/10 & 12/2/10)






Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author



Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 15, 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. Other of his essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

(The following is my re-edited reply to a posting at the Red Room by legendary editor Alan Rinzler (who worked with, among others, Hunter S. Thompson). Alan, now a distinguished editorial consultant, discusses the problem of writers who are unable to finish their books and has many good things to say. My reply ran longer than intended.)

I am about to publish my first novel Dragon's Ark, a contemporary Dracula tale (through Ambler House
Publishing, due out March 15, 2011). It took me about five years to complete, much too long for what could be considered a light novel.


Part of the reason for this is, well, I didn't use an outline, but another reason is that, with all the thousands of vampire novels flooding the market like the blood packets bursting in a bad horror film, mine really needs to stand out. Getting it to that point has been no easy task. 


(BTW: outside of neurological reasons, I don't believe in writer's block. There are, however, many days when
I'm simply a bad bad writer. I simply keep typing “Bob opened the door” until I get better.)


Now, (after reviews by beta readers, etc.) I'm sending out advanced review copies to booksellers and reviewers. I'm also doing the final proofs and guess what? It's not "perfect" (whatever that means).

Oh, it'll be correctly spelled and formatted and all. The continuity of its vivid characters and dizzy plot are sound. It's excellent in a dozen different ways and I do believe it stands out as a unique, colorful, entertaining, rollicking, horrific look at a fabulous legend.


But as I painstakingly review, period-by-period, my final proofs--and at this point any major rewrites are off the
table--I sometimes wince. Does that scene work as absolutely well as it could? Gee, that sentence is a lame cliché. What would Nabokov/Hammett/Straub et al do . . . ?


I could easily spend another one-to-five years making it "perfect." But, especially on a literary level, I don't know what that means! Greatness I can grasp . . . but perfection? 


One day I write a brilliant sentence. The next day I look at it and my jaw bounces on the desk. I can go back and forth like this for a looonnng time and it's not like I have a lot of that.

So, I'm tightening the belt, polishing the shoes one more time, making the sure the buttons are in the right holes and the tie is knotted. But in the end, I have to let it go out into the world.


I have no control over how readers will react. My brilliant passages will be condemned, my worst praised as "the greatest thing I've ever read." There'll even be readers who conclude that I really believe in Dracula's literal existence.


Time to let go. There’ll be reviewers who will astutely point out flaws I missed or didn’t consider as important. I know I'll look at it some day and say: "Could have done that
better." There'll be lessons I can apply to my next novel ( the rootin'-tootin Prohibition saga Butchertown) and lessons that I can't.

It’s only my first novel. May I please publish the darn thing now? I have to start somewhere. I'm sorry it's not Gravity's Rainbow.


But I still believe with my heart that Dragon's Ark is as good a book as I can write at this point in my literary life. It wants to go outside and so I'm letting it go. Maybe it'll get run over.But maybe it won't.


It could even turn out be a better book than I realize. At least I can hope. And, believe me, I will.

(re-edited 11/28/10)


Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield 


Photo by Elizabeth Burchfield



Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 15, 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

E-Books: Here to Stay . . . But Where?


You’ll get no argument from me: E-readers and e-books are here to stay.

However, I’ve yet to buy an e-reader. I’m traditionally a second—or third--generation adapter: Wait until the bugs are worked out, prices fall (and my income rises), and, in the case of e-readers, distribution issues are settled. Right now, the iPad looks like the one that I want, even after my disappointment with the iPhone.

I wonder though: How far will e-books  penetrate the world of readers? Pretty far, it's fair to say, but will it be as far as the tech-topians promise? Might these dreamy notions fall a little short, along with other such predictions as the jetpack, the self-cleaning living room and “someday humans will no longer have to eat”?

Now, as a self-publisher, I’m no growling Luddite Fool. When my contemporary Dracula novel Dragon’s Ark (which you all will read, of course) comes out in March 2011, you’re darn right I plan to distribute it as an e-book through both Smashwords and Scrib’d, plus any other major e-book distribution systems that should appear between now and publication day. (The way Tech World changes, I won’t be surprised if both distributors suddenly become as passé as Lady Gaga should be right now.)

Nevertheless, Dragon’s Ark as an e-book still lingers far back in my mind, like a forgotten thumbnail on my e-drive. I’m much more thrilled by the ten advanced reading POD copies I ordered from Lightning Source now sitting in a box on the piano downstairs, ready to be placed in the hands
of actual willing book dealers and interested reviewers. Solid material objects, tangible books, 6” x 9”.with both heft and a knockout cover (by Cathi Stevenson). My heart glows with romance.

In one of his recent postings, the excellent Joel Friedlander (one of independent publishing's more tireless promoters and my book’s interior designer) claims that, statistically, more people are downloading and reading books than ever. The downloading number is easy to track, but the reading? Beyond self-reporting, I don’t know how the number of actual
readers can be confirmed.

And so, I wonder, how many of these e-books are being actually read? Or downloaded and simply forgotten among all the other noise that sprinkles onto our hard drives every day? This is especially important to consider when e-books are being sold at prices as low as 99 cents. At that
that price, that latest YA bodice ripper you bought from Smashwords could well find its way to the bottom of the digital sock drawer. (I bought the e-book of Kemble Scott’s The Sower for $2.00 and still haven’t read it.)




A bound dust-jacketed copy of War and Peace and an e-book of same are certainly the same in terms of
the text contained, but they still feel distinct from each other. One has the weight of a lovingly bounded, attractive real-world object that waves at you from your bookcase or night table whenever you pass by. (“Hey! Your wife gave me to you for Christmas! I cost $37.00! You promised you’d read
me someday!”) And when I did hold in my lap in bed, I felt the sweep and weight of its long human history, how it stretches across time. Like the soul, it felt immeasurable and lofty.

The e-book of War and Peace, I’m less sure about. As a thumbnail on my e-reader it may seem closer to a mere abstract idea, with the same status as the folder marked “Real Estate” (which I haven’t opened in two years). Among all the other files I’m sure to have on my iKindle (or KindlePad), it may be just another thumbnail. Assuming it’s cheaper, it may be even be easier to forget about. And I’ll
never receive a book of that caliber as a gift in that format.

E-readers and e-books are not the same thing. Where one goes, the other doesn’t necessarily follow. I can see using my e-reader to download basic reference works for the editing business or a book I’m writing. Or to read a novelist I’m new to and whom I’m not sure I want taking too much money or
shelf space. I’m still likely to prefer my hard copy issues of The New Yorker, especially if I forget it on the bus, drop it in the bathtub, or leave it out for my in-laws' dog to chew on. With
bound paper, I won’t be out so much.

Now, I’ll hazard a couple of predictions:

First, e-books will almost completely fill the role once played by mass market and pulp paperbacks. And, as happened with the mass markets, some fine books will wind up buried among the hundreds of thousands of volumes of  Tommy Tinkle, Teenage Detective versus the Zombie Army and DIY
Dentistry—Is It for You?


(Note to the ghosts of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford: It’s not any easier now than it was in your day. Getting novels like Pop. 1280 and Wild Wives published is no longer the challenge. Getting them read is.)

Second, I’m willing to bet that Dragon’s Ark will sell more copies as an e-book than it will as a POD trade paperback. BUT—and here’s what I find interesting—of those who download it, how many will get around to actually reading it versus those who bought it in paper?

I’d sure like to know.

Whatever happens, despite the advice I’m hearing, my book won’t be going for 99 cents. Whatever you can say for or against Dragon’s Ark--a universe-and-a-half away from War and Peace--it’s not that forgettable.


Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield 

Edited 11/19/10; 11/28/10

Photos by author



Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Copy-Cat ! (Or: Burchfield Rips Off a Jon Carroll Cat Column)



Over the past eight years, I’ve seldom written about our cat Flo, a gem-like but goofy and affectionate calico. This is not due to any weeny sense of privacy, but, partially, because I didn’t want my work to be seen as a pale shadow of the fine and famous Cat Columns by famous San Francisco Chronicle Cat Owner, Jon Carroll.

[5:45 a.m.: The World-famous Cat Columnist Jon Carroll suddenly sits up in bed, antennae shivering with alarm in the cold
dawn. Something is wrong! Rising quickly, he slips feet into slippers and wraps self in bathrobe.]

My main reason for not writing more often about our dear Flo is that there’s not much to say about her beyond “Yup, she sure is sweet, ain’t she?”

[5:50 a.m.: Carroll trips over cat Bucket and falls on face while rushing down hallway to office.]

I first saw Flo’s green button eyes staring vacantly up at me while on my first visit to Elizabeth’s apartment in 2002. Not many brains in this one, I thought.

Later, I caught Flo curling about on the kitchen counter—a Place Upon Which Cats Do Not Belong (though They Behave Otherwise). Before I could remove her, she stood on her hind legs, put her paws on my shoulder and crawled into my arms, swelling into a purr that melted the granite cockles of my heart.

Uh-oh, I thought. Oh my . . . I couldn't put her down, even after she started to drool on me.

[6:05 a.m.: Bearded lips quivering, Carroll gapes in horrific disbelief  at computer screen: “This . . . this is an OUTRAGE!”]

Later that evening, after a pleasurable time spent combing my fingers through the sumptuous fur of this ecstatic creature, I rose from the couch and walked across the room, only to feel a batting at my feet. I turned to look: It was Flo, chasing after me, with her odd, whisper-soft hiss, her eyes wide with outraged bafflement as she swatted at my ankles: Hey! Come back here! Pet Flo! Then she sat on perfect point, staring up at me, her eyes wide with hope. 


Suitably chastened, I returned to the couch.

[6:20 am: Carroll fires off angry cease-and-desist e-mail to Alleged Plagiarizer.

6:25 a.m.: After an angry response to reply from someone named “Norman Mailer Demon,” Carroll shoots highest-priority e-mails to Chronicle Editorial Board, requesting emergency meeting.

6:28 a.m.: Carroll discovers that cat Pancho has figured out control-alt-delete.]


Most Cat Stories start like this: “I always thought cats were dumb, but one day. . . .” Then comes the tale about flushing toilets; playing fetch, hide and seek, and the piano; ringing doorbells; sounding the alarm when the house catches fire; catching the burglar; stealing chess pieces, hiding them, then leading you to them; signaling it’s time to take the yummy medicine by jumping up on the chair, right when you have the dropper in hand.

Cats are certainly not smart like dogs, but the smart ones reveal an often startling, opportunistic intelligence and awareness. If they were human, crime rates would be three times what they are. But they also display a fierce devotion toward their people equal to that displayed by dogs. I’ve bonded with cats without going within ten feet of the food dish.

I have no Smart Cat Stories about Flo. She’s a WYSIWYG cat. To me, sociability equals smarts in cats, but Flo is an odd exception--dumb as a dust mop, loves all who pass gently through her small rounded world (except, of course, for Other Kitties).

[6:40 a.m.: Carroll trips over Bucket, falls on face while rushing out to car.] 

 
Elizabeth and I have a dumb goofy cat. That’s all.

Example: Flo does not steal food. We could leave a steaming hot chicken and tuna dinner out on the dining table, go out to a movie and it’ll still be there, untouched, when we return. Though Flo may sniff around it, she won’t eat it.

Does this mean Flo is an Trustworthy Incorruptible Kitty, the Eliot Ness of Felines, one who would never stoop to stealing the Food of Her Masters?

Not at all. It means simply this: If it’s not in a dish, on the kitchen floor, it’s not food!

“Yup,” you say, “that’s a dumb cat, alright.”

[8:00–11:00 a.m.: During tense, three-hour meeting with Chronicle Editors, Carroll anxiously proposes options for dealing with new challenge to Cat Column Monopoly. Urges copyright lawsuit and trade marking of such terms as “cat,” “Bucket and Pancho,” and “kibble.”

11:00 a.m: Carroll storms out of meeting after suggestion that he get a dog and write about that instead.]


Cats are said to be “snobby,” “aloof,” “independent.” We’re only their “staff” and all that. I must disagree. I’ve bonded with many cats in my life, and after eight years of living day in and day out with Flo, I conclude that cats are none of those things.

The truth is this: Cats are babies.  


Cats are stuck in an eternal kittenhood, are deeply dependent on their owners and are as domesticated as dogs. The fact that feral cats (the so-called free-living kind) live on average only five miserable years, while fighting off parasites, other cats, dogs and car traffic, while your housebound cat lives up to twenty years (even outlasting many dogs), should settle the matter.

Without us, cats live hard and die early. To me, that’s a pretty human-dependent animal.

[12:15 p.m: Carroll returns home, finds cats have changed locks on doors. Attempts to gain access through cat door.]

Their image of independence could be, I suspect, due to our projection of flattering ideas of ourselves on this sometimes opaque creature. One thing seems true—their stealth and opacity makes them a good subject for whimsical, absurd flights of humor.

[2:48 p.m.: Carroll finally extricates self from cat door, finds entire neighborhood has gathered to stare. Carroll is told that Bucket and Pancho are now posting “Jon Carroll Columns” on the Internet.


“Cats!” Carroll shakes fist at sky. “Damn them!”]

Flo is truly a Wonder Cat. As in, “I wonder when Mom’s coming home?” “I wonder when the Big Friendly Giant’s gonna break out the Wonderful Blue Brush?” and “I wonder why they’re using my water dish as a toilet?”



"Mine!"

Life with Flo is one sweet and simple puff of delight after another: the way she lies on top of my hand (another one of All the Things that Belong to Flo); how she snuggles in my armpit on cold nights; the way she runs in front of me when I walk into the bedroom at night, looking up at me in hope that
I’ll pick her up (which I may or may not do).


 "Mine!"
[3:30 p.m.: Carroll rushes into Internet cafe. Review of Bucket and Pancho’s “Jon Karel Kolum” site shows 1,000,000 views since morning and offer of column space at The New Yorker. Carroll’s page views: minus 10.

 Cuter than Bucket . . . cuter than Pancho . . . put Together!

You wouldn’t know it from the photos, but Flo is an old girl now, her joints creaky, her stomach touchy to anything but special kibble. Still, her jewel-like charm and kitten spirit shine bright and Mom and I are happy to be the Greatest Things in Flo World. Even with her low-wattage brain, she’s one of the great cats of my life.

[4:45 p.m.: Carroll goes to animal shelter, brings home dog.]

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield 

Photos by author

Re-edited 11/18/10

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts on "The Dark Frontier" by Eric Ambler


Eric Ambler wrote The Dark Frontier, his very first espionage novel, in the mid-1930s. He meant it to be a parody, as he relates in his excellent and typically erudite introduction to the Mysterious Press edition from 1990. He wanted to write a novel that would “make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators,” with their indomitable, jut-jawed heroes, ungreased by human failing, and, consequently, often as dull as unspiced soup.

The novel starts out amusingly enough. Henry Barstow, a overworked, dowdy, 40-year-old English physicist and bachelor of celebrated reputation is on an overdue vacation in the south of England, when he encounters a mysterious Mr. Groom. Groom immediately starts picking through the cave-scape of Barstow’s considerable brains for knowledge, specifically about those new atomic weapons that have been making the news (weapons that were in reality already being researched at that time).

Mr. Groom represents the nefarious-sounding corporation of Cator & Bliss. He attempts to enlist Professor Barstow in a scheme to steal the secret plans for a new-fangled atomic weapon held by the unstable government of the shadow-strewn (and mythical) Balkan nation of Ixania, before they can use it against western nations . . . or so he claims. . . .

At first, Professor Barstow, a Scientist with a capital “S”, refuses with admirable English staunchness, suspicious that Mr.Groom cares only about world peace as it applies to the shareholders of Cator & Bliss. On his way to bed that night, he happens across a fictional version of the derring-do tales being parodied here—one titled Conway Carruthers, Dept. Y, and indeed, it’s pretty lame—and almost promptly puts it
down. “Barstow the mathematician had no use for Barstow the romantic.”

Unfortunately for the Professor, not long after, he receives a bump on the brain and  awakens with a case of amnesia so severe that believes himself now to be master spy Conway Carruthers. As Carruthers of the secret service, he promptly adopts the disguise of “Professor Barstow” (an identity doubling that might have spurred an admiring snort from Vladimir Nabokov). With his new identity as a super
secret agent, the professor sets out across the dark frontier into mysterious Ixania to stop the dissemination of this new weapon of mass destruction (before it’s too late! Of course.)

In his introduction, Ambler modestly and intelligently dismisses his maiden voyage into fiction, writing that, as a parody, it fails. Over 70 years later, and from the vantage point of my reading chair, I’d agree.

After the amnesiac Professor decides to don the disguise of, well, himself, you would eagerly anticipate a string of comic calamities like something out of Donald Westlake. Unfortunately, there are few laughs to be found and the misfortunes unfurl in the classic fashion of later Ambler.

As it turns out, tweedy Barstow’s amnesian makeover into Ultra Action Spy isn’t a delusion at all. He really does become a master spy and, therefore, an entirely different character. With nothing to link the two men, we’re left with a character who’s a vague, non-funny and confusing mush, hard to envision either as scientist or hero. Ambler makes a few passes at portraying some confusion underneath Carruthers’ ultra-confident manner, but seems to give up.

Mid-point through the narrative, Ambler changes to the more-believable viewpoint of an American investigative reporter. The narrative swirls along on surer ground here, but it also makes Barstow even more baffling and less interesting. It would also help if all the characters and the world they chase each other through were as whacked-out as the professor/spy should be, but in the end, Ambler the realist rather clumsily wins out over Ambler the farceur.

Outside of the problem of Professor Barstow, the novel does have excellent plotting, a driving story, and is threaded with fine writing, excellently drawn supporting characters, and an incisive and sophisticated take on politics, money and power (though Ambler, always a dedicated leftist, would later strongly disavow his own romantic flirtation with Soviet Russia.)

As a straight novel of espionage and adventure, The Dark Frontier has its pleasures. You can see the talent that would make Eric Ambler a pioneering genre writer whose work would fully flower in novels like A Coffin for Dimitrios, Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm and many others. His innovation of the “everyday hero” inspired no less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock. His novels have influenced such major genre authors as Graham Greene, John LeCarre, and Alan Furst, who relates he wrote the first sentences to his first masterwork, The Night Soldiers, on the back of a copy of Dimitrios. And, finally, his name even inspired the founding of this neat little publishing house.


(Edited 11/12/10)

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be approached on Facebook, followed on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Photo by author

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield