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.