From Istanbul to Europe’s heart of darkness

From Istanbul to Europe’s heart of darkness

William Armstrong -
From Istanbul to Europe’s heart of darkness ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’ by Eric Ambler (Penguin Modern Classics, 240 pages, £10); ‘Journey into Fear’ by Eric Ambler (Penguin Modern Classics, 224 pages, £10)

The late English novelist Eric Ambler has had a renaissance in recent years. The six thrillers he wrote from 1936 to 1940 were runaway successes and revolutionized the genre, but Ambler then fell off the radar. Today, after years out of print, his unsettling work once again chimes with the spirit of the age, and Penguin recently decided to republish six of his novels as Modern Classics. 

Ambler’s major innovation was to bring the bombastic thrillers popular at the time down to earth. Out went the patriotic heroes on unrealistic adventures of derring-do; in came ordinary central characters with day jobs as engineers and journalists. Ambler’s description of Mr. Graham in “Journey into Fear” is representative of his typical protagonist. “A quiet, likeable sort of chap,” he writes, “a bit like an expensive dentist trying to take your mind off things.”

The author’s formula was to take a naïve Englishman and drop them across the channel into the maelstrom of 1930s Europe. The continent was a jungle where economies were stagnant, banks fragile or failing, markets manipulated, and politics violently divided between right and left. Ambler’s almost exaggeratedly parochial characters get embroiled in sinister pan-European plots about which they can know little. In the words of historian Mark Mazower in the introduction to “The Mask of Dimitrios”: “It is a world where London is a distant heaven across the water, as the dust settles on the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the Russian civil war … [Where] the hope of a rational and benign world is an illusion.” 

From Istanbul to Europe’s heart of darkness From Istanbul to Europe’s heart of darkness

“Journey into Fear” takes place almost entirely in an Italian freighter travelling from Istanbul. The dentist-like Mr. Graham is an arms dealer who has just held high-level talks that could cement a Turkish-British alliance in the recently started Second World War. After concluding the talks, the far from hard-boiled Graham finds that dark forces want him dead, “a man alone, transported into a strange land with death for its frontiers.” The gloomy German proverb that man is just “an ape in velvet” is evoked throughout the book. As suspense ratchets up in the claustrophobic confines of the ship, the hope of a rational and benign world proves an illusion. 

“The Mask of Dimitrios” also opens in Istanbul and similarly charts a journey into the murky heart of Europe. We watch Latimer, a writer of popular crime stories, get caught up in the world of real crime as he traces the tracks leading to the death of shady contract killer Dimitrios, whose dead body has washed up in the Bosphorus. Again, the Istanbul evoked is not a city of glamorous imperial mosques and oriental odalisques; it is the forlorn post-imperial conurbation of seedy Beyoğlu backstreets, coal-choked waterways, and cheap hotels. “Good and Evil [were] no more than baroque abstractions,” the narrator observes at one point. “The logic of Michaelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Yearbook and Mein Kampf.”

After his initial literary successes, Ambler worked in the cinema alongside luminaries like Alexander Korda and Alfred Hitchcock. You can tell from his style: The plot moves swiftly, scenes are cut rapidly, and heavy dialogue keeps things rattling along. Ambler’s rejection of sensational plots and romantic characters only made his novels more thrilling.

The pages hum with a potpourri of European languages. It would have been nice if the editor of these Penguin Modern Classics provided footnote translations for the reader unfamiliar with Hungarian, Turkish, French, Spanish, etc. Still, “The Mask of Dimitrios” and “Journey into Fear” are unquestionably page-turners. As Mazower writes about the former, “One might think it was written yesterday with its Balkan drug dealers, unscrupulous Eurasian businessmen and bedraggled refugees drifting across the continent.” Today, when history has returned to a Europe wracked by insecurity, uncertainty and paranoia, Ambler’s novels make for enjoyable and salutary reading.