Eric Ambler is widely regarded as the author that gained literary respect for Spy novels and thrillers. His books focussed not only on a gripping plot but on his excellent writing style. Perhaps most importantly was his ability to make his novels largely factually accurate, particularly in political matters. His 1939 book, The Mask of Dimitrios, is seen by some a prophetic as it mirrors the political situation of the Balkans decades later.

Ambler started writing spy novels in the thirties with The Dark Frontier (1936), Uncommon Danger (1937), Epitaph for a Spy (1938), Cause for Alarm (1938), The Mask of Dimitros (1939), and Journey into Fear (1940). The most famous of these is the Mask of Dimitrios, titled 'A Coffin for Dimitrios' in the US, it was made into a film in 1944. It was during this period that Ambler established his reputation for being both an excellent thriller writer and being able to bring a sense of political realism to his novels.

It was not until 1951 that Ambler returned to Spy novels after a spell of screen writing. Originally returning under the pseuodonym Eliot Reed in 1953 he resumed his own identity with The Schirmer Inheritance. He continued to produce high quality thrillers in the form of both novels and films. In 1994 he wrote his autobiography, Here Lies.

His Life

Born in 1909 in London Ambler went to Colfe's Grammar school and studied Engineering at the University of London in 1924-1927. His parents were entertainers and in the late 1920s he toured as a music hall comedian and wrote plays. After this he took an apprenticeship with the Edison Swan Electric Company.

By 1937 was director of a London Ad Agency and throughout 30s was writing avant-garde plays. He moved to Paris in 1938 after resigning to write and met his wife to be, Lousie Crombie, whom he married in 1939. Like many intellectuals in the 1930s Ambler had leftist sympathies and was a member of the Popular Front. He never became a Communist however but he did attack the ideologies of both Fascism and extreme Nationalism.

Ambler served in the British army between 1940-1946 and was awarded the American Bronze Star. Originally joining as private with the Royal Artillery he was then assigned to a photographic unit. After serving in Italy he was made assistant director of Army Cinematography in the British War Office. During his time with the Royal Army film Unit he worked with the likes of Peter Ustinov and Carol Reed.

After war went to work as a screenwriter for the Rank Organisation. He did not write any spy novels until his 1951 book, Tender to Danger. This book began a series of five which he wrote under the pseudonym Eliot Reed in collaboration with Charles Rodda.

Ambler's second wife, Joan Harrison, a script adviser to Alfred Hitchcock whom he married in 1958 after divorcing Crombie, died in 1994. In 1959, 1962, 1967 and 1972 Ambler received the Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association and a Diamond Dagger for life achievement in 1986. He won Edgar Award of The Mystery Writers of America in 1964 and was named as Grand Master in 1975 by the same organisation. He also received literary awards from Sweden and France. In 1981 Ambler was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Ambler himself passed away in London on 22 October 1998 at the age of 89.

His Genius

The thing that I love about Ambler's books is that they generally have a normal business man or author as their main character. This means that the detective reasoning is not absurdly complicated but still interesting. It also lends a great deal more realism to the danger of their situation, a trained detective facing a master criminal is merely doing a days work whereas a regular man caught up in a web of deceit has to really work to stay alive, let alone solve the mystery.

In addition Ambler's early novel represent an era which I am particularly interested in. His characters would travel across Europe armed with nothing more than a small suitcase, a few letters of introduction and their wits. The idea that one can travel around Europe without staying in a hotel but by visiting a number of vague acquaintances is long gone.




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