ERIC AMBLER, more than any other writer, can fairly claim to be the originator of the modern novel of espionage. He found a genre dominated by heroes who at best were paradigms of simple patriotism, decent chivalry and egregious courage and who at worst were crypto-fascist, racist and humorless Philistines whose exploits could satisfy only those readers who had never outgrown their adolescence. Out of this hotchpotch of covert sadism and juvenile fantasy he has created the modern spy thriller and set it in a complicated, recognizable, normally ambiguous and, above all, political world. The old hero, who was too good to be true, has been superseded by the contemporary anti-hero who, like the rest of humanity, is too true to be wholly good. Ambler specializes in the ordinary man confronted by extraordinary events, whose brittle weapons against the malice of men and of fate are recognizable human qualities; fear as well as courage, cynicism as well as belief, self-concern as well as sacrifice. In translating the old certainties into the 20th century he has many imitators but few rivals, and in the stunning first sentence of The Care of Time we recognize the authentic Ambler voice:
"The warning message arrived on Monday, the bomb itself on Wednesday. It became a busy week."
The man who receives the bomb and who is the narrator of the story is Robert Halliday, a successful American writer who specializes in ghosting the autobiographies of film stars. The bomb is not intended to kill him but to initiate what is presented as a highly lucrative writing commission, the editing of a book on the recently discovered memoirs of an early anarchist, S.G. Nechayev. The man who has devised this original way of interesting a prospective literary collaborator is the mysterious and sinister Dr. Karlis Zander, alias Hecht, Bruchet, Luccio and Pike. Zander is a typical Ambler creation, one of the ubiquitous predators and middle-men of international espionage who are citizens of no particular country, owe allegiance only to themselves and who, if not wholly bad, are certainly dangerous to know.
Zander's unorthodox method of approach is, of course, successful. Halliday flies to Italy where he and the reader are immediately deep in Ambler country, that dangerous international territory of intrigue and double-dealing where nothing is as simple as it seems (not that anything in an Ambler story ever is simple) and where we are well advised to take no one on trust, not even the narrator. Here Halliday's past catches up with him, and he is persuaded into the increasingly hazardous role of intermediary in delicate negotiations which involve Middle East politics, the security forces of NATO and "The Ruler," a sheik who is that most dangerous of human animals, one who combines immense power with highly questionable sanity. Ambler controls his complicated plot with brilliant expertise, and when the action moves inexorably towards its climax we expect this to be intellectually satisfying as well as thrilling. We are not disappointed.
Since he began his writing career with Dark Frontier in 1936, real life has increasingly imitated Ambler. We have all become familiar with the acronyms of terrorism and can view its results almost daily on our television screens. In a world deformed by hatred and violence, literally anything now seems possible. Even so, the crime novelist still needs to persuade us of the reality of his world and this Ambler does brilliantly, not by sprinkling the action with contemporary brand names, but by demonstrating a detailed technical knowledge of how that world actually works. For example, the description of how the parcel bomb is collected and made harmless by the Pennsylvania bomb squad owes nothing to imagination and everything to meticulous research. Everywhere there is an absence of carelessness and a respect for the reader's intelligence.
The internal tensions of the complicated plot are brilliantly controlled; whenever we are on the verge of thinking that the excitement has slackened, the author jerks the cord again. The dialogue is vigorous, the characterization throughout is masterly and the writing, as we expect of Ambler, is forceful, felicitous and witty. The Care of Time is a model of how, in the hands of a master, the action thriller can combine elegance and style with action and thrills. Eric Ambler must now be over 70. But this, his 20th novel, shows no diminution of his powers and may be taken by his admirers as a happy augury of pleasures to come, let us hope, for many years.