Friday, July 1, 2011

Losing His Religion: Judgment by Ambler

Judgment on Deltchev was Eric Ambler’s first novel after a 10-year hiatus that started in 1940, at the dawn of World War II. It tells the story of Foster, an English playwright suffering from writer’s block, who accepts what he believes will be an easy newspaper assignment: attend the circus trial of Yordan Deltchev, an Eastern European politico accused of treason by an oppressive Soviet-dominated government (unnamed but one that resembles Bulgaria or Albania): Attend trial, file reports, come home. A lark.

Like all Ambler characters, Foster is a callow naïf, a well-meaning chap, unsophisticated in the ways of the world, especially the workings of politics. This is the kind of suspense story I’m most drawn to. I don’t have much feel for the steel-jawed-hero fiction created by writers like John Buchan that continued with Ian Fleming’s James Bond and is now epitomized by Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—not that these novels don’t have their pleasures, but where’s the suspense with someone you know is going to win for the good every time and stay much the same guy he was at page one? (For that, I always went to upside-down, inside-out moral world of Richard Stark’s Parker.)

Think of it this way: James Bond represents the kind of man many of us might like to be. The Eric Ambler hero is the man most of us are. At the very least, this raises this stakes, heightens the danger.

Foster expects the Deltchev trial to be a minor propaganda show aimed at a lower case dissident. However, after he’s greeted at the train station by Georgi Pashik, a jumpy, odorous man clothed in a seersucker suit (and a most memorable character, thanks to Ambler’s perceptive, vivid prose), Foster, impulsively decent and honest, finds himself dangerously lost in a hall of broken mirrors, of revolution and counterrevolution, of betrayal and counter-betrayal. Few corpses sprawl across the page, but danger is always imminent as the shadow of war and history reach inside Foster’s mind and soul.

In his introduction to a Carroll & Graf paperback of Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, Greil Marcus quotes a friend of his who read Ambler’s post-World War II spy novels after reading his run of classic pre-War novels that included Dimitrios. The friend said that the writer who invented the modern thriller appeared to have had lost his “sense of dread” in the decade between his 1940 novel Cause for Alarm and Deltchev.

This seems to be true. Ambler was a true-believing Leftist in the years leading up to World War II. Against the rising tide of Nazi-inspired dread that swept across Europe in the mid-1930s, there was, weirdly to us now, a counter-tide of optimism on the part of European Leftists. You can sense this in Ambler’s classic cloak and dagger novels from that period, starting with Background to Danger. Under the gritty realism, sophistication, and nuance, beats the heart of an idealist, an author who is certain that, no matter how bad things seem, social justice and equality, the rise of a “New Man,” peek brightly from beyond the horizon.

The source, the inspiration, for this “New Man” was, with horrible irony, Soviet Russia and Hitler’s co-monster, Josef Stalin. This can be seen in Ambler’s portrayals of the pivotal characters who guide the Ambler hero through shadowy back alleys, where Fascist Capitalism does bloody battle with Progressive Socialism, to safety and wisdom—they’re often Russian and employed in the secret service, roughhewn and willing to use violence, but avuncular, lively, humane, and reassuring.

Anyone who has done more than glance at a history book will know this is wholly false. That it was illusion became brutally clear on August 23, 1939, with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that both proclaimed neutrality between Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union and divided up Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence.” World War II started just over a week later, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht and SS blitzkrieged into western Poland. Stalin was hardly passive as his Red Army rolled up the eastern half. The New Man's mask fell away to reveal a New Monster.

“I’d really lost my subject matter,” Ambler was quoted as saying with typical understatement. While lesser, stupider people clung even more desperately to Soviet ideology (somewhat like today’s Tea Partiers clinging to their own absolutist illusions) and shallow apostates spun like weathervanes toward other ideologies to satisfy their cravings for easy absolutes (think extreme Leftist turned extreme Rightist David Horowitz), Ambler quit novel writing.

But Eric Ambler was no quitter. He joined the British Army as a private, later became a documentary film producer for the British government (working with such lights as John Huston) and a successful screenwriter.

The differences between his early novels and later ones are clear in terms of their outlook (though the writing remains superb, the atmosphere vivid and the narratives entertaining and absorbing). Judgment on Deltchev reveals a mind more mature, wiser and, maybe somewhat sad to say, much more sour than the sophisticated idealist of the 1930s.

In the ruin of war and the spread of Soviet tyranny, Deltchev portrays politics, especially as practiced in Eastern Europe, as a web of sordid, grubby intrigue, where each side cancels the other out in moral turpitude; where even the “good guys,” with their secret agendas, are compromised souls who can’t be wholly trusted. In fact, they can’t even trust themselves, making, in my view, Ambler’s later novels, into bitter ruminations on perception and politics. In this world, politics, to Eric Ambler, makes a poor leaky vessel for the human spirit.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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