You could almost say Eric Ambler started what John Le Carre finished, and I would agree if it weren't for the fact that I've never encountered a dull paragraph in any of the eight or ten Eric Ambler spy novels I've read - from Cause for Alarm (written in 1938) to Doctor Frigo (written in 1974). Whereas, when I finally read Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold last year, I was so bored I can't recall if I finished it. However, it was Le Carre's A Constant Gardener that reminded me to resume my Eric Ambler reading odyssey, because in fact the book reminded me of the master's style, much to Le Carre's credit.
The intrigues in Doctor Frigo take place in the early 1970's mainly on St. Paul, a typical post-colonial island in the French Antilles in the Caribbean. The lead character is a physician and a native, Ernesto Castillo, called Doctor Frigo by many, whose father was a liberal/socialist who was briefly in power before being assassinated twelve years previously. The plot revolves around the return to the island of a leading figure from Doctor Castillo's father's political party, to establish his bona fides to take over the government. This politician is named Don Manual Villegas, and he arrives from Mexico where he had spent the twelve years exiled by the junta that overthrew the narrator's father and by the "civilian oligarchy" which superseded it. The latter is falling; a rich offshore oil field has become potentially greatly profitable due to rising international oil prices; and a large private oil consortium, as well as the French government, is concerned. But the concerns of Doctor Frigo are more personal: was Don Manual Villegas involved in or even responsible for the assassination of his father, and what will he do if he learns the answer is "yes"? Further, once Castillo discovers that circumstances will not permit him to be simply the truthful, disinterested and contented physician that he is, is he being being set up, and by whom?
Which is only background. I say "only" because Ambler's true foreground is his marvelous descriptions of his characters and renderings of their conversations. As the book opens, the reader is struck forcefully by Castillo's intelligence, meticulousness, and foresight; but then with each new character whom the author introduces, the Doctor is portrayed as quite out of his element with yet another person. Including the pompous local police commissaire; the unflappable intelligence officer from France; the slimy representative of the international oil cartel; and the personages - intelligence, governmental, and clerical - of the remnants of the civilian oligarchy; as well as many others, including the Doctor's lover, a Hapsburg Dynasty expert-and-descendant who repeatedly mocks him by attributing to him the characteristics of various long-deceased idiots and incompetents of that most pertinacious royal house.
The ending comes as a resolution, not a surprise. And on the next-to-last page, Eric Ambler articulates in a conversation his masterfully condensed description of post-colonial, Caribbean regimes in the 1970's, which could also serve as the most charitable interpretation of America's condition in 2008, after seven years of George Bush. Doctor Frigo is talking to a Monsignor who says: "I am not offering the Church as an escape hatch, Don Ernesto, any more than you, I would think, would offer Democratic Socialism, whatever that is. No government, however well-intentioned, can do things for people without also doing things to them."
-"Forgive me, Monsignor, but that is part of a psychological platitude. The rest of it is that you can only do things with them. Comforting but meaningless."
-"Not entirely I think. It was Father Bartolome's view for a while. He did much good among his people then."
-"You surprise me, Monsignor."
-"Oh, of course, he became corrupt and disgraced us all. It's so easy. Easy for priests, but even easier for governments."