Title: Cause for Alarm
Author: Eric Ambler
Publication Date: 1939, by Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)
ISBN: 0-375-726748 (trade paper);
The initial hardcover printing predates ISBN assignation

I don't like crime/spy novels as a rule. They seem so contrived, with circumstances built up to such a ridiculous extreme that even I have a hard time suspending my disbelief. Part of my problem with the genre stems from the fact that these novels are supposed to be believable. Ian Fleming's over the top secret agent aside, the works of, say, Robert Ludlum always bored the pants off of me for their sheer ridiculousness.

I guess part of the problem is that the life of a spy in the real world is an extremely dull one filled with paperwork, drudgery and the occasional backroom deal - stuff that looks great in a history textbook but makes dull pleasure reading. Leafing through the Warren Report, I don't get a feeling of awe or excitement or even interest. I get sleepy.

The first thing about Cause for Alarm that got to me was that it was extremely plausible. Set in 1936 in Fascist Italy, the novel follows Nicky Marlow, a British engineer recently unemployed and soon to be married, in his attempts to keep his head above water in the only job he could find - the primary Italian contact for a company that sells machines vital to the manufacture of munitions. The line between politics and business is made starkly clear here, at least initially - while he detests the Italian government, Marlow emphasizes to himself over and over that he's merely acting as a representative of his employer and that greater concerns (the fact that he's supplying machinery to the Rome-Berlin Axis, to name one trifling point) aren't his responsibility to worry about. It is also apparently not his concern to wonder what happened to his predecessor, a fact that would come to haunt him later on.

Things become murkier when he is introduced to Andreas Zaleshoff, an American of Russian descent in charge of a failing import business, and General Vagas, a Yugoslavian patriot and (trying not to give too much away, here) a 19th century anachronism, make-up and all. With their help, Marlow becomes the center of a massive conspiracy to change the face of Europe.

I say massive because of its scope, not its implementation - there are no shadowy bosses hiding in the corners and stroking fluffy white cats in this novel and there are no super agents. What there is is a stifling continental bureaucracy, a manifest for weapons parts that shouldn't rightly exist (that's right. The novel focuses on paperwork and you know what? It's not dull) and a man stuck in the middle trying to get home to his fiancé without being executed by the Italian secret police. It is the second half of this novel, his escape attempt, that is so riveting and so fiendishly clever in its execution that I laughed out loud, not because it was funny so much as it was so logical and real. To say more would probably do Ambler a great disservice. Suffice it to say, I was impressed.

- - -

This is the kicker. As I finished this book, I thought it an amazing piece of revisionist history - I was under the impression that it, like most inter bellum historical novels, was written in the fifties or later. I was utterly shocked to discover that it was published one year before it was set - it is so prescient it's scary, and the detail evoked, the feel of a continent about to be thrown into a bitter, bloody war, was palpable.

I was shocked and sated. Couldn't have asked for more from a novel I approached expecting to merely tolerate.