Saturday 27 June 2009

Eric Ambler - a writer's century.

Eric Ambler was born one hundred years ago on 28 June. The English author of spy novels is generally regarded as one of the first writers to introduce gritty realism in his characters: his spies had no particular physical strength or prowess with weapons; they were often more lower middle class chaps than upper class gents.

A recurring theme in Ambler's books is the amateur who finds himself unwillingly in the company of hardened criminals or spies. His heroes can appear as anti-heroes - they don't get every hunch right; they're sometimes outwitted, but yet eventually they can take a decisive action that outwits far more experienced opponents. Books like The Light of Day and Dirty Story are stories of the amateur or unlikely spy, unlike Bond, who is not a product of Sandhurst or Oxbridge.

The New Statesman magazine this week publishes an excellent article about Ambler's life and fiction, in light of Penguin's decision to reissue five of his best books. This being the New Statesman, in-house magazine of the left in the UK, writer Robert Hanks makes much of Ambler's status as a pre-war anti-fascist, and a writer who drew upon the contemporary global struggle between opposite political poles when contextualising his fiction:

"These are left-wing thrillers: the plots emphasise the interweaving of capitalism with violence, the villains are sometimes Nazis but just as often bankers and industrialists, and socialists and communists are invariably portrayed sympathetically – two of the novels even feature idealised KGB agents. You can see why the Conservative member for Surrey Heath might want to fudge the matter."

Hanks recognises that many writers and readers draw a line from Ambler to John Le Carré and Len Deighton, as writers who create worlds of moral ambiguity in which their heroes' actions are never clear cut or totally justifiable. But he sets Ambler apart by ascribing to him a more political, social awareness in his characters:

"Ambler has often been praised as a precursor of both John le Carré (who called him “the source on which we all draw”) and Len Deighton. They follow him in the moral greyness of the worlds they inhabit and the ordinariness of their heroes and villains – men with no particular charm or physical prowess, little expertise with women or guns to charm the reader. But in one important respect, both departed from Ambler’s model: their heroes are professional spies, men working for the state; and, as a result, their stories have a misleading air of insularity (this is particularly true of le Carré’s early work). They remind me of the fantasy some people entertain about East End gangsters, that they’re not really a problem because “they only hurt their own” (I’ve heard this said in complete sincerity)."

It's an interesting article and worth reading, as Ambler was also a friend to Deighton as well as a fellow writer.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Thriller writers love to cook...

In today's Independent newspaper, thriller writer John Walsh waxes lyrical about the republication of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book. It looks like John's been able to use his status as a fellow thriller writer to coax some more details from Len via the medium of a telephone interview with Len from his home in California, and he gets some new details from the author about his early life and motivations which led to the creation of the cook strips, and then this book.

For example, Deighton says: of his early kitchen education: "I was an art student on vacation, and got a job at the new Festival Hall's restaurant as a temporary kitchen porter. One day I was mopping the floor when the fish chef asked me if I would do some jobs for him, as his assistant hadn't arrived. My first task was skinning Dover soles. I must have been a good student because he then showed me how to fillet them. From then onwards, my days were spent as unofficial assistant to the fish chef, though I was still paid only porter's wages. I once asked my chef why he'd chosen me for this sudden elevation. He said everyone had noticed the way I 'hung around watching the cooks'. He was right. During my student vacations, I continued to work in kitchens in England and abroad, and I not only hung around watching the cooks, I became one of them."

Well worth checking out.

Friday 5 June 2009

The origins of a fascination with espionage, perhaps?

I offer my thanks to crime and thriller writer Mike Ripley, who's shared with me an interview he completed with Len Deighton at the end of last year which has just appeared in the CADS newsletter. One interesting answer Deighton gives to Mike points us in the direction of his early interest in spy fiction, and corroborates the fact that I'd seen this mentioned somewhere a while back, but could get no confirmation of it.

Deighton, as a child, lives in Gloucester Place Mews, Marylebone: "One night, I leaned from the window to see our next door neighbour Mrs Wolkoff being arrested. My mother worked for her as a cook and saw the VIPs she had as dinner guests. Dear old Anna was an important spy working for the Germans. After a trial at the Old Bailey she went to prison. For reasons we must not probe into, the Special Branch falsified the records to say she was arrested in South Kensington. That commotion in the small hours of the morning stayed in my memory."