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.
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.
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Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield