Authors: Eric Ambler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist and screenwriter


Because Eric Ambler’s earliest novels were the first realistic portrayals of international intrigue that adhered to high literary standards, he must be considered the virtual creator of the modern genre of espionage fiction. He was born in London on June 28, 1909, the son of Alfred Percy Ambler and his wife, Amy Madeline Andrews. His parents were music hall artists, and though his father later worked in advertising, his parents’ enthusiasm for music and the theater profoundly affected Ambler’s early development.{$I[AN]9810001409}{$I[A]Ambler, Eric}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Ambler, Eric}{$I[tim]1909;Ambler, Eric}

In 1917, he entered Colfe’s Grammar School with a scholarship and later studied piano at Blackheath Conservatory. In 1926, he was awarded an engineering scholarship to Northhampton Polytechnic, which later became part of the University of London. He spent most of his two years there reading in the British Museum and attending films, plays, and law court sessions because by this time, influenced by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, he was determined to be a playwright. Ambler’s recognition of the Machiavellian aspects of politics and the realities of class struggle were enhanced during the General Strike of 1926, when the London Rifle Brigade, in which he had enlisted as a Territorial, was deputized as “special constables.”

In 1928, Ambler left school to take a position as a technical trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company, but his artistic ambition was still strong. He attempted to write a novel about his father’s theatrical life, and when he abandoned this project he and a partner formed Barclay and Ambrose, a music hall comedy team for which Ambler wrote and composed songs. In 1931, he entered the publicity department of the Edison Swan company as an advertisement copywriter; a year later, he set himself up as a theatrical press agent; and in 1933 he joined a large London advertising firm. Yet his primary concern throughout this period was still the theater, and he was writing unsuccessful one-act plays.

Ambler’s decision to write espionage fiction was made gradually. It developed in part from his profound awareness of the irrational aspects of modern international affairs, which was deepened by his reading of Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler and by his first encounter with fascism during a vacation in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. It also was the result of his contempt for the work of his predecessors, and his first effort, The Dark Frontier, was partially intended as a parody. Set in a fictitious Balkan country and concerned with the development of an atomic bomb with which the villains intended to blackmail the world, it was both prescient about the world’s future and implicitly critical of the espionage stories of John Buchan, who was definitely an establishment writer, and of the Bulldog Drummond stories of “Sapper,” which were virtually fascist in their implications. Ambler, though he never participated in left-wing politics, was vaguely socialist in sentiment, and having written his parody, he saw an opportunity to turn the espionage genre upside-down, in effect, by producing espionage stories that would present their protagonists’ predicaments in the light of left-wing assumptions.

With the commercial success of his next novel, Background to Danger, Ambler left advertising and went to live in Paris, where he wrote his other prewar novels: Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Journey into Fear. In his autobiography Here Lies, Ambler is refreshingly modest about the four-year golden period, from 1937 to 1940, which saw these five novels into print and ensured him a lasting place in the modern espionage subgenre. He takes a self-joshing pleasure in noting that they had a “knack of appearing before the public at the most inauspicious moments. Journey into Fear was the [London] Evening Standard Book-of-the-Month for July, 1940, the month in which the Third French Republic ceased to exist and the Battle of Britain began.” His method was to present an innocent professional who, caught up in an intrigue, is forced to cooperate with the left-wing forces of good against fascist villains.

In 1940, Ambler joined the Royal Artillery. In 1942, he was assigned to the British Army’s film unit and in 1943 to John Huston’s crew during the filming of The Battle of San Pietro. This experience led to a highly successful postwar career as a screenwriter, his most distinguished script being that for The Cruel Sea, and he spent eleven years in Hollywood. In 1968, he moved permanently to Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Ambler had resumed his career as a novelist in 1951. By this time, the world had changed radically from what it had been in the 1930’s, when the moral issues of international politics were simplified by the menace of fascism. Because the confusions of the Cold War had changed the espionage genre, the tone of his postwar works was often cynical, and they were usually set on the periphery of the East-West conflict–in the Middle East, the East Indies, Africa, or Central America.

The best of these works, however, set a high standard and are remarkable experiments in the field of espionage fiction. The two novels about Arthur Abdel Simpson, The Light of Day and Dirty Story, were a departure for Ambler, whose earlier protagonists had been average, reasonable people in extraordinary and often irrational situations. Simpson is an opportunist who would seem a great scoundrel if only the people with whom he becomes embroiled were not worse, and he is a product of Ambler’s belief that “most people are more odious than they think. Not wicked, just odious.” Probably Ambler’s most distinguished postwar novel is The Intercom Conspiracy, which develops the idea that between the intelligence services of the two sides in the Cold War the innocent bystander will find little choice. Finally, The Siege of the Villa Lipp is a remarkable experiment in which Ambler translated the methods of modern intelligence agencies into the terms of modern business practice in telling the story of the way illegally acquired funds are “laundered.”

In 1958, Ambler and his wife Louise were divorced, and later that year he married Joan Harrison. Like Ambler, Harrison was a successful screenwriter, having long been associated with film director Alfred Hitchcock. She received Academy Award nominations in 1940 for Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca in best original and best adaptation categories, respectively. Both Ambler and Harrison made successful excursions into American television in the 1950’s. World travelers, they settled into a permanent home in Clarens, Switzerland, in 1968. Harrison died in 1994, and Ambler died four years later at the age of eighty-nine.

Ambler’s importance in the development of the modern espionage novel cannot be exaggerated. When he began his career, espionage novels lacked respectability because of their unrealistic plotting and characterization. Ambler proved that they could treat the actual conditions of international intrigue realistically and that they could adhere to the highest formal and stylistic standards. The Mystery Writers of America awarded him its Grand Master Award in 1975, describing him as “the father of the modern spy novel.”

BibliographyAmbrosetti, Ronald J. Eric Ambler. New York: Twayne, 1994. A standard biography examining Ambler’s life and works.Cawelti, John G., and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. A useful genre study that provides background for understanding Ambler.Eames, Hugh. Sleuths, Inc.: Studies of Problem Solvers–Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1978. Discusses Ambler’s distinctive approach to his genre and his relationship to other notable mystery writers.Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares famous fictional spies and spy stories–including those of Ambler–to real espionage agents and case studies to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction.Horsley, Lee. The Noir Thriller. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Focused genre study places Ambler in relation to his fellow practitioners of the noir thriller. Covers four of Ambler’s novels produced between 1936 and 1940.Lewis, Peter. Eric Ambler. New York: Continuum, 1990. The first full-length study of Ambler.Wolfe, Peter. Alarms and Epitaphs: The Art of Eric Ambler. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993. A very good, full-length critical study.
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