Eric Ambler and the Spy Novel

Beyond the Balkans
Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-40

Brett F. Woods

While completing Journey into Fear, Ambler correctly presumed that, when faced with the scenario of World War II, he would almost certainly not be able to finish another novel if he began it. And while he did indeed continue writing after the cessation of hostilities, Ambler’s most significant contributions to the evolution of espionage fiction rest in the publication of his prewar novels. Accordingly, we perhaps owe more to Eric Ambler than to any other espionage novelist because he rescued the spy novel from the kind of slough into which the detective novel had fallen. At a time when most spy writers were congenital Tories, he applied his enlightened intelligence to the political background of espionage. And, without Ambler, it seems highly unlikely that either Le Carré or Deighton would have emerged.

As suggested by an interview conducted some three years before his death, Ambler was not only aware of the extent to which world political affairs held sway over the genre, but also the importance of maintaining some measure of neutralism while writing an espionage novel:

Early in my life and books, I was a little to the left. I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice. I’m of the same generation as [Graham] Greene. While he was hostile to America, he was never rude about it. I never put the Cold War in any of my books. Never took sides during the Cold War, not that I was a closet Communist. I always found the Cold War distasteful. For my wartime generation, it meant taking the best years of your life and turning them around. After the war, nobody wanted to return to prewar conditions. They had dreams of an improved way of life. Unfortunately, the Cold War did not help those dreams.

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