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on 27 May 2009
The Levanter is a book I buy again and gain in order to re-read it, and of how many thrillers can one say that? Le Carré at his best writes this well. Chandler merits regular re-readings, as does Elmore leonard sometimes ('Glitz', 'La Brava'....). Who else?

The narrator of this story is a science graduate of the University of London, like Ambler himself, so the scientific detail is all accurate, unforced and down to earth. Ambler never wastes a word and yet somehow he manages to enter the mindset of the (anti-) hero who is blackmailed into joining a Palestinian terrorist organisation. He is not 'a man of violence' but in the end decisions have to be taken.

Ambler is a supremely cerebral novelist but that does not prevent him from writing very exciting stories. His characters are usually ambiguous which merely serves to make the stories more believable and indeed more enjoyable. When you've read this - and you must - try the 'Schirmer Inheritance', 'A Kind of Anger', 'Passage of Arms'. 'The Intercom Conspiracy'.......damn it all. Read them all.
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This novel is set in Syria over a period of three months in the early 1970s. It describes how a businessman, Michael Howard, the head of a family business that has traded in the middle east for 70 years, is forced to assist a terrorist group in planning and enabling a major attack on Israel, and how the execution of that attack is eventually foiled.

It begins with an American journalist, Lewis Prescott, describing how he agreed to interview Salah Ghaled, the sadistic leader of a small terrorist group, the Palestinian Action Force (PAF). The interview itself is described in a later chapter. Then Howard tells the story of how he got sucked into the activities of the PAF. It starts with him negotiating with a junior minister, Dr Hawa, for a joint venture with the Syrian government to make batteries, and as a consequence he hired a chemist called Issa. Later, Teresa Malandra, who runs Howard's office, alerts him that chemicals have been purchased that are not used in making batteries. He suspects fraud, and one evening he and Malandra go to the plant to investigate. There he finds Issa giving bomb-making instructions to a group of young Arabs. Also there is Ghaled. He forces Howard and Malandra to co-operate with the PAF by threatening their lives. In a short chapter by Malandra we then learn more of Howard's personality, partly shrewd trader, partly engineer and partly wily politician. He is a complex man, and this helps us understand Howard's later actions, some of which are open to criticism.

The co-operation with the PAF consists of allowing the resources of Howard's business to be used to supply and test materials used in making bombs that will be used in an attack on Israel, and of altering the route of one of his cargo ships so that it passes close to the shore of Israel to enable the attack. From what he has seen, Howard deduces that this will consist of the detonation by a radio signal from the ship of large caches of explosives smuggled into Israel, coordinated with a rocket attack from a smaller boat that will `shadow' his own ship. Howard attempts to frustrate the plan by enlisting the help of Hawa, but this fails because of the Syrian government's dived loyalties. In desperation, Howard contacts the Israeli secret service and alerts them to the plot. He also arranges to travel on the ship with the small party of terrorists, which includes Ghaled. By altering the course of the ship, he is able to put Israel out of range and so thwart the attack. In the ensuing struggle Ghaled is shot and killed, probably by Howard, but this is never made clear, and in later court proceeding no mention is made of this.

The book ends with Prescott reviewing the events and interviewing Howard. The latter is angry that people do not understand what happened, that the Israelis have not said anything by way of explanation, having presented the incident as a simple highjacking by pirates, and that as a result his family business is finished in Syria and at great loss is having to re-establish itself in Italy.

This is a superb political thriller with an original plot that is totally believable. It captures the political atmosphere of Syria at the time, with deceit and intrigue everywhere, Howard not being exempt from this. It describes in a convincing way the difficult balancing act that had to be performed by anyone trying to do business in the region at that time. The portraits of not only the main characters, but also the many `bit players' are very well drawn. It is an excellent read.
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on 24 July 2010
Perhaps this is only my own ignorance of the genre, but an unreliable narrator is not something I would have expected to find in a spy story. Not that this is exactly what we get, but still, the competing perspectives of the three narrators in this novel mean that central protagonist Michael Howell is nicely decentred, and we quickly learn that we shouldn't quite trust his opinion of himself. For depite what the back cover would have us believe, he is not really apolitical, being complicit with Syrian government officials long before the mechanics of the novel's plot involves him with Palestinian terrorists.

Nor is this exactly a spy story either, with the spies largely kept to the margins of the narrative, the focus remaining on Michael Howell, for whom the text is an attempt to exonerate himself from charges his unwilling involvement has brought about from the international community, and on the terrorist leader Ghaled. Ambler's depiction of Ghaled has the feel of an authentic portayal of a fanatic, a man who despite his devotion to his political cause is also clearly guilty of overweaning pride and arrogance, not only a terrorist, but also a manipulative gangster. He is neither a monster, but nor is there any attempt to 'explain' his murderous actions by resort to cheap psycologising.

Whilst Ambler is excellent at maintaining the ambiguity of his characters, and in conveying the details of Howell's business dealings, Arabic society and the Palestinian/Israeli confict as it then was in ways that rarely feel forced, if I have one criticsm it's that I didn't get much of a feel for the various locations where the story takes place. The cover of No Exit Press' edition is wonderfully evocative, but some of that was missing from a narrative which is otherwise a little terse, detail being conveyed as much through dialogue as through sometimes rather plain description. This could of course be considered a strength. Ambler has little time for cheap exoticism, but is instead chiefly concerned with the morality and actions of his deaply flawed central character, and with how Howell contrives to deal with the intricate trap which he has found himself in.

An interesting novel, which shows how Ambler was as much interested in probing the subtleties of character and motive as he was in composing a thrilling narrative.
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VINE VOICEon 5 February 2016
The Levanter is late Ambler, first published in 1972. It is set a couple of years earlier, largely in Syria, and is concerned with the way in which one of those typical Ambler protagonists finds himself embroiled in a terrorist plot. The eponymous Levanter is Michael Howell, whose very British name conceals a more complex mixed Armenian, Cypriot and Lebanese heritage. He's the head of a family engineering company with a long history of business in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and is doing well in the difficult circumstances of the time, negotiating with the one-party Syrian regime with the help of his Italian secretary/lover. But, as is so often the case with Ambler, his relatively cosy world is about to be shattered by the intrusion of some brutal political realities. A terrorist group, the Palestinian Action Force (modelled on one of the many such groups that emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967) has infiltrated the company in order to manufacture bombs to use against Israel. Howell, for reasons carefully explained, cannot simply go to the authorities, and the scene is then set for a tense game of cat-and-mouse as Howell attempts to outwit the coldly sadistic leader of the terrorist cell, Salah Ghaled.

The narrative is split between three first person narrators: Lewis Prescott, an American journalist, who provides the background detail through his account of an interview with Ghaled; Teresa Malandra, the secretary, who offers a wry perspective on her boss; and Howell himself, who carries the bulk of the narrative, mostly attempting to justify his actions since he has been, we glean, vilified by both sides after the events have concluded. Howell is always at pains to show how his actions stem from the best of motives, and his self-deprecating stance helps the reader to identify with him as he becomes increasingly entwined in the terrorist plot. Ambler stresses his ordinariness - he is a successful and enterprising businessman, yes, but as Howell ruefully points out, "when the commodity is violence and the man you are dealing with is an animal" his business skills are of little use. Howell's narrative is careful and detailed - that attention to detail is one of his character traits, but also leads to the only parts of the story which drag a little. I'm not sure the reader needs to know quite as much about the construction of dry cell batteries as we are given here. That said, the second part of the novel, which concerns the attempted raid by the terrorist group, moves at a fair pace, and the scenes on board Howell's ship the Amalia as the climax approaches are gripping.

Ambler maintains his usual high standard in this tale, where every character is flawed and no-one completely blameless. In a world stripped of moral certainties, Howell represents a kind of grubby virtue.
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on 15 December 2015
This is a really difficult book to review for me because I am an engineer and I am interested in manufacturing. To me the book was excellent but would it be good for a non-engineer?
It is a thriller set in the 70s with an Arab-Israeli background. The hero is an engineer who enters a strange relationship with Arab terrorists in order to make explosive devices. There is a lot of manufacturing detail.
The book is well-written, not dated and easy to read. I would give it 5 stars but I am trying to present the case for non-engineers.
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on 27 October 2015
This is a mature Ambler. Michael Howell, a businessman in a Syria in the early seventies, finds himself unwillingly helping a Palestinian maverick terrorist who wants to kill lots of Israelis. Howell, who is well described as a committee of people. Is a formidable person, and his struggle to avoid mass murder is intriguing. A well written and compelling book.
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on 13 January 2013
This was my first Kindle download - are they all this shabby? I've reported a typo on virtually every page, some simple punctuation errors, others are more fundamental, such as "bum" instead of "burn". Doesn't anyone proofread the text like a proper publisher would? It's enough to make you want to go back to physical books.
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To read or not to read the great espionage 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 clich?-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler's 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 many 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 and Middle Eastern 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 The Levanter. In this novel, we find Mr. Ambler operating at his full powers, combining remarkable character development with complex plots and delicious ambiguity. You will be reminded of Mr. Le Carre.
Uncharacteristically, his protagonist, Michael Howell, is a man of great intelligence, sophistication and subtlety. So he can take on a greater threat than anyone else. Fascinated by the problem of extracting his family's investments from Lebanon, he's been collaborating with the government in covert activities. This backfires in an unexpected way. How will he overcome this challenge?
Howell is one of Ambler's best characters, full of moral ambiguity. He's so good at looking out for his own interests, that he constantly is taking advantage even of those who are trying to take advantage of him. In this book, we get a sense of the mental and moral toughness of a trader. I found the book to seem immensely realistic.
The story telling is strengthened by varying the role of who the narrator is so that you see more dimensions of the plot. Part of the story is told by Howell, part by Lewis Prescott (a journalist hose attempting to sort out what really happened) and part by Teresa Malandra (Howell's co-worker in Lebanon). I'm sure that small businessmen in Middle Eastern countries still face the issues exposed in this plot, which makes the story chillingly timely, even though it is set in the late sixties.
Howell's solution to the problem is quite original and interesting. I think you'll enjoy it.
After you finish this story, think about where your principles are compromised by the actions of others who are outside your control. How can you ensure that those inadvertent compromises do no harm?
0Comment|2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
To read or not to read the great espionage 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 clich?-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler's 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 many 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 and Middle Eastern 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 The Levanter. In this novel, we find Mr. Ambler operating at his full powers, combining remarkable character development with complex plots and delicious ambiguity. You will be reminded of Mr. Le Carre.
Uncharacteristically, his protagonist, Michael Howell, is a man of great intelligence, sophistication and subtlety. So he can take on a greater threat than anyone else. Fascinated by the problem of extracting his family's investments from Lebanon, he's been collaborating with the government in covert activities. This backfires in an unexpected way. How will he overcome this challenge?
Howell is one of Ambler's best characters, full of moral ambiguity. He's so good at looking out for his own interests, that he constantly is taking advantage even of those who are trying to take advantage of him. In this book, we get a sense of the mental and moral toughness of a trader. I found the book to seem immensely realistic.
The story telling is strengthened by varying the role of who the narrator is so that you see more dimensions of the plot. Part of the story is told by Howell, part by Lewis Prescott (a journalist hose attempting to sort out what really happened) and part by Teresa Malandra (Howell's co-worker in Lebanon). I'm sure that small businessmen in Middle Eastern countries still face the issues exposed in this plot, which makes the story chillingly timely, even though it is set in the late sixties.
Howell's solution to the problem is quite original and interesting. I think you'll enjoy it.
After you finish this story, think about where your principles are compromised by the actions of others who are outside your control. How can you ensure that those inadvertent compromises do no harm?
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on 30 November 2015
Very good indeed. Read it and visualise the intrigues of the times just prior to the establishment of The State of Israel. Ambler is a fine writer who is little known to today's readers of spy genre and Middle Eastern 'macchiavellics'.
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