A Storyteller's Story SOME WRITERS, you trek thousands of miles to see them and they don't even offer you a miserable glass of water. Eric Ambler, on the other hand, had a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon, a top-notch New Zealand white, cooling on the coffee table, right next to a nice plate of hors d'oeuvres. Such hospitality is all too rare.

On the other hand, maybe he was lulling me. Ambler has a formidable reputation for dealing with impertinent interviewers and other fools. In a recent reissue of his 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier, he mentions how around 1980 "a respected and, at that time, greatly feared literary critic named Clive James made my work the subject of an essay in the London Review. He had his reputation as a killer to sustain, of course, but I escaped with only a couple of bruises and one bad cut. He was laying off the booze at the time and I introduced him to V8 juice." (The "at the time" is a particularly nice touch.)

It's not only critics. In his autobiography, Here Lies, Ambler describes in detail his first and only American book tour in a withering tone, especially his encounters with "the local wise-acres, rogue literati and aha-school instant analysts."

He's retired from writing now, and has no need to put up with any of this. But there's a real danger in keeping too low a profile. In his 86th year, Ambler is honored in the histories of the spy genre but forgotten where it counts, on the shelves of the bookstores. None of the London shops I went into boasted a single paperback with his name on it. Even such pre-war classics as A Coffin for Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear -- books that effortlessly created the modern style of thriller -- aren't available.

Not that the writer seems to care much. He lives in a spacious, elegant apartment in a fashionable quarter of London, the fruit either of his undiminished popularity in Europe or perhaps merely the accumulated savings from his years in Hollywood.

To his admirers, Ambler is worth taking seriously not merely as an immensely influential genre writer but as a serious artist. As might be expected, Ambler himself agrees the usual labels are irrelevant. Thriller, mystery, suspense novel -- he doesn't really see any of them as applying.

" Suspense' is silly. A novel without suspense is a contradiction in terms. Look at Jane Austen. Her novels have suspense, but they're not called suspense novels.' Patricia Highsmith, who just died, hated the label too. Really I suppose that storytelling was the thing I valued."

His pre-war stories introduced an element of subtlety into a form that had never had it. Earlier spy novels tended to be simplistic right-wing fantasies, the heroes often veritable supermen. Ambler's heroes were instead ordinary folk, caught up in plots and conflicts they didn't understand. Violence wasn't their biggest priority, either.

Look at the conclusion of Dr. Frigo. Set on a Caribbean island during a time of revolution and betrayal, this 1974 tale is the author's favorite of all his works. Ambler describes the ending: "Frigo has at last discovered who murdered his father. He has the general who actually did the dirty work more or less at his mercy. Yet he doesn't do anything but feel sorry for him. It's bloody difficult for a writer to choose that position.

"And, of course," he adds, "that's fatal for any movie."

Perhaps this is why the movies haven't been particularly good to Ambler. "Topkapi" (1964), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on The Light of Day, is "quite amusing, but it isn't the book. What's good about Topkapi' is Peter Ustinov."

As for the 1944 film made from A Coffin for Dimitrios, "I didn't think it was so bad. I liked Sydney Greenstreet. But it wasn't Dimitrios. The whole point of Dimitrios is for most of the book he's dead. But throughout the movie he's very much alive. I didn't understand why they bought it."

Because they have no ideas of their own, of course. But then, the real philosophy underlying these novels would have been too radical for Hollywood.

"If I had been asked what I was in 1939, I would have said I'm a socialist. But when I stood in the middle of all those bloody battlefields in Italy in '43, I thought, It's really not worth it. Mussolini was better than this, better than the destruction of the entire infrastructure of southern Italy.' "

Was it better, then, to have Hitler than the destruction of Germany?

Ambler didn't go that far. "Hitler was a different cup of tea. You have to admit that." But he concedes that the suffering he saw in the war made him largely apolitical. By the time the Cold War began, he was only "sentimentally" a socialist. In 1951 he published Judgment on Deltchev, a thriller about an Eastern European show trial that didn't earn him any new communist friends.

Nevertheless, he says, "I didn't feel that it was all that easy to turn quondam friends into bitter enemies. I always felt a certain sympathy for people like {English traitor Kim} Philby. He stuck to his guns. It's like Alger Hiss. Guilty as hell, but he was sticking to a belief, however mistaken."

Ambler's only current belief seems to be cynicism. "It's necessary that political parties have power. But it really does corrupt."

Well, yes, but certainly power corrupted the Stalinist regime more than, say, Margaret Thatcher's?

Maybe, Ambler agreed, but only because Stalin "had longer and a freer hand."

This was interesting stuff, but I had sworn to take only an hour. Besides, the bottle of wine was empty. In any case, it was noon, and Ambler said he had a lunch date. The Future of Literature THE DEATH of Ian Ballantine last month marked the end of an era in book publishing. More than anyone, Ballantine and his wife Betty established the mass-market paperback book in this country, first in 1939 by importing Penguin titles from England, then in 1945 by founding Bantam and finally in 1952 starting the company that bears his name. The fact that all three companies are not only still alive but among the very few major players in the paperback business is testament to Ballantine's acumen.

The free Armed Services Editions gave the World War II troops a taste for reading, a fondness that developed in the '50s and '60s into a full-fledged passion. The paperback was the ultimate consumer disposable, selling for a price so cheap (25 cents in the beginning, moving up to perhaps $1.50 by 1970) that people treated them not as sacred objects but casually. Everything was published in the same format: Faulkner and Fitzgerald and books of poetry as well as occult pap and gaudy trash.

Now the segmentation in the market is pretty drastic: Pop fiction is in mass-market, selling for about $6 each, while quality nonfiction and literature are almost always in the larger format trade paper size, selling for twice as much if not more. At those prices, no wonder so few copies get sold.

It seems like a downward spiral, but then book publishing is full of them. Shortly over a year ago, the closing of two literary imprints -- Atheneum and Ticknor & Fields -- was announced, just as Harcourt Brace inexplicably fired most of its staff. For a time, the air was filled with moans and groans about the End of Literature in Our Time.

This spring, the omens for serious publishing are rather better. The descendant of one of those paperback companies started by Ian Ballantine, Bantam Doubleday Dell, is so flush these days it is setting up a fourth publishing division. Meanwhile, the same conglomerate's Dell division has resuscitated the Dial Press, shuttered a decade ago.

Other serious imprints are springing up. Putnam has started a new division called Riverhead, while an outfit called Metropolitan Books will soon be issuing a dozen high-quality books of fiction and nonfiction a year. Meanwhile, a group of Minnesota booksellers have decided to show the big guys how it's done. Hungry Mind Press will issue four books a season.

The plan, the five founders say, is to take a "non-traditional approach." In other words, authors will be consulted about marketing decisions, contracts will be comprehensible, booksellers will be treated as partners and Manhattan publishing chatter will have no sway on editorial choices. In this regard, the press's first title has a certain symbolic value. Leaving New York: Writers Look Back is an anthology of essays about the ambivalent attractions of the city.

Finally, there's D.C.'s own Counterpoint Press. Not surprisingly, its list resembles in some ways North Point Press, the outfit that editor-in-chief Jack Shoemaker ran during the '80s. The first books from the house, due out this fall, include a volume of essays by Wendell Berry, The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell and M.F.K. Fisher's translation of The Physiology of Taste. All three were North Point stalwarts.

Cornelia and Michael Bessie, consulting editors to the press, have acquired Invisible Allies, a new autobiographical work by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Also on the first list is Jean Lacouture's history of the Jesuits as well as an illustrated volume about the Stieglitz circle of artists, co-published with the Phillips Collection. All told, the press seems to be making a reasonable start on its rather ambitious goal of bringing "into public view the ideas and work of important writers, artists and scientists valuable to the intellectual life of our times." A Caldecott Controversy CHILDREN's book publishing is a world unto itself, its disputes and feuds rarely slopping over into the adult world. The awarding of the 1995 Caldecott Medal -- the highest award for children's book illustration -- to Smoky Night has proven a bit of an exception. The prize is such an automatic endorsement that parents and grandparents pick up "the new Caldecott" unthinkingly, which means they don't expect even the slightest touch of controversy.

Smoky Night, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz, is a child's-eye view of a riot. Deirdre Donahue in USA Today wrote that the book should "require a warning label alerting parents and teachers that the contents within may be deeply disturbing." Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine echoed that point, saying young children shouldn't be exposed to the nasty world before it's absolutely necessary.

Diaz is scornful of his critics, saying they are "living in a bubble. To say we shouldn't expose children to this type of book is really naive. Our kids need to be on their toes."

He understands, however, "how someone would be a little hesitant about getting into the story. This is definitely a book geared to bringing about discussion. It's not a bedtime story. But I don't think there's anything in this book that's going to scare a young kid."

Although a little more conciliatory, Bunting echoed her illustrator's points. "I hate to say this, but I don't think we've seen the last riot. I think the best protection and the best armor is truth."

Even for little children? "I don't believe you can protect children from the quite often ugly realities around them today. My daughter, who has a daughter who is seven, said Charles Krauthammer has obviously never listened to seven-year-old girls talk. They know what's going on." In the Margin . . . IN AN UNUSUAL move, Houghton Mifflin will issue a revised version of David Leavitt's novel While England Sleeps this fall. The original edition, released by Viking in September '93, became the subject of a plagiarism suit filed in England by the poet Stephen Spender. Viking scuttled the book on both continents, and announced but eventually declined to publish a revised version. When Leavitt's editor moved to Houghton, she took the project with her.