To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly cliché-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to Background to Danger.
The book opens with a curious discussion in London before the start of World War II about securing Rumanian oil, and the unexpected complications of international politics. That's the big picture. Then, we move on to the small one. Kenton, an English journalist with a case of the financial shorts after an unsuccessful round of gambling on poker-dice, boards a train in Nuremberg to go to Linz in Austria. Sachs tells Kenton that he is a German Jew and will be sent to a concentration camp if the frontier guards find the money he carries. Sachs offers Kenton three hundred marks to carry the package of money for him. Kenton is delighted . . . except when Sachs refuses to take the package after crossing the frontier, and offers yet another three hundred marks to carry the package to a hotel in Linz. At the hotel, Kenton has a most unpleasant surprise. Then when he opens the package, his former happiness is replaced with absolute terror. What should he do now?
This book is built around the question of who is a friend and who is an enemy. Kenton finds that he has more in common with the interests of a Soviet agent (before the alliance with the Nazis occurred) than with some of his fellow citizens who are "businessmen."
This book has much more action than most Ambler novels, and will feel more like a current thriller to most readers. You will probably enjoy the story more if you understand the history of Europe just before World War II. One of the favorite dilemmas then for Western democracies was to choose whether the dangers of Nazism (the German government's philosophy) were worse than the dangers of Communism (the Soviet government's philosophy). The book has a rich international flavor that puts you right in the middle of the sort of espionage intrigue that was actually occurring at the time. It's a delicious tale in that way.
After you finish this story, think about how you should decide who you can trust . . . and who you cannot.