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on 27 December 2015
Eric Ambler has given me a great deal of enjoyment over the years and this superb yarn set in Fascist Italy will enthral you too. Nicky Marlow is a redundant engineer who goes to Milan to run the office of an English firm there, hoping to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart. But his predecessor met a sticky end and our hero soon realises he's up to his eyes in murky business, the 'painted' General Vagas just one of the sinister characters ranged against him. The book features suspenseful walks along fog-shrouded streets, double-dealing and chicanery, astute political analysis of the pre-war situation in Europe, and a flight from danger that is one of the most exciting I've ever read, with a mind-boggling encounter along the way. This sequence includes a cafe stop where the hero drinks a "tolerable Barbera" (Italian red wine), that brilliant "tolerable" telling us all we need to know about Nicky's middle-class background, though Ambler has him write letters to his girlfriend (who "refrains manfully" from asking questions at one point) that are far too literary and insightful for the character. Still, Henry James and German novelist Theodor Fontane often made this mistake and CFA is none the worse for it. Get yourself a bottle of tolerable Barbera and spend an evening or two with this excellent novel. Cheers.
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on 2 January 2014
I have developed a real love Eric Ambler's novels, and I wish there were more. His writing is superb, the plots genuinely gripping, and the historical detail inherent in his work is fascinating. Ambler writes in a taut, unsentimental style which nonetheless packs a real punch. Rather than dazzle with the derring-do of impossibly glamorous heroes, he instead invites us to feel the disorientated vulnerability of ordinary people caught up in dangerous times. His protagonists, while always decent and intelligent, also seem to be badly out of their depth when confronted with the cynical brutality of wartime. This makes them more rather than less intriguing, and means one is never quite sure how the plot will work out. Ambler's prose is succinct and atmospheric, and his psychological insight is always acute. A great, if undervalued writer.
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on 28 December 2014
One of the most underestimated thriller-writers of the 20th century. The writing is excellent, the characterisation outstanding and the topic straight from the headlines. What particularly drew my admiration is that there's a real sense of menace throughout. What modern writers might (from the safety of hindsight) portray as rather glamorous bohemianism, Ambler makes genuinely creepy with all the repugnance fascism ought to inspire. The author deserves to be much more widely known. You get a real sense of Europe on the brink of war, what was at stake, how finely balanced the continent then was between civilisation and a new dark ages.
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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 Cause for Alarm. The book begins powerfully with a prologue, Death in Milan. A man is waiting to follow an Englishman in the cold. The Englishman appears and crosses the street. A large limousine accelerates violently into him, running him over. The man next to the driver sees that the Englishman is still alive, and directs the driver to "Go back and make certain." They run over the Englishman again. This time, he dies.
English production engineer, Nicky Marlow has just gotten engaged, and almost as quickly loses his job when the Barton Heath works have to be closed when a key customer is lost. Jobs are scarce during the Depression, yet he turns down a chance to take a four year contract in Bolivia for small pay. Finally, he applies for and obtains a one-year assignment in Milan which will mean being away from his fiancee, who has encouraged him to be sensible. They can get married later.
The job means supplying equipment needed to make munitions, and Germany and Italy are now allies. So Marlow is put in the touchy position of helping make arms that may be used later against his countrymen. He closes his eyes to that problem and begins doing his new job, replacing a predecessor who was unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident. Soon, strange characters begin courting his favors and offering him tempting deals. One of them even encourages him to play along with another of the characters. It seems that Marlow has unexpectedly put himself right in the middle of Britain's enemies as they spy on one another. Everyone needs him to do their bidding, and few care whether he survives or not. The Fascists even grab his passport to make him more vulnerable. Totally unprepared, he begins to pursue a dangerous double-timing game.
One of the reasons why I am so fond of this book (which I have read several times) is that it points out that when we ignore the morality of our business activities there will be a price to be paid. Another interesting moral question is what the right thing to do is when we are faced with the possibility of reducing risk to others by increasing the risk to ourselves. When are we obligated to do so?
The colorful figures of Zaleshoff and General Vagas make the story ever so much spicier. Neither are people with whom Marlow would have associated in England, yet the two are key to his making progress in Milan.
The book's structure is written like three novellas. The first details the situation in which Marlowe finds himself. The second involves his engagement in the espionage. The third relates his attempt to escape. You will feel like a person being sucked by the undertow out to sea as you progress from one novella to the next . . . as increasing fear and heaviness grip you.
After you finish, think about some place in your life where your work causes or could cause harm to others. How can you overcome that current or potential harm?
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on 25 October 2015
This another short novel by Eric Ambler. The plot(which is a variation on a constant theme in all his novels around this time) concerns a hapless British engineer who takes a doubtful job in fascist Italy. As with all these books, the protagonist is surrounded by plotting foreigners, eager to use him. Here we have General Vagas as the evil fascist, and Zaleshoff, the slippery but really quite nice Soviet agent.Ambler liked the Soviets.
Poor Marlow,the engineer, finds himself expected to bribe, being bribed, and threatened with death.
He muddles through with help. This is a good thriller but I have begun to find them predictable.
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VINE VOICEon 18 May 2015
Set in Italy in 1938, Nicky Marlow is a young engineer selling British shell making machinery to the Italians. Fascist and Nazi secret services take an interest in his activities, as well as a Soviet spy, Zaleshoff.

This is another terrific adventure story from Eric Ambler, as the hapless but honest Marlow finds himself (in common with most of Ambler's heroes) deep in over his head in a murky world of intrigue, betrayal and murder.
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on 15 June 2015
I top rate this because it is a good read. It is both entertaining and informative. Those familiar with Ambler' s "spy/crime fiction" will recognise the format. Hapless innocent becomes involved in something not bargained for and absurd antics commence. It works and is highly entertaining.
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on 9 October 2014
Having read some reviews I took this on holiday with great hope. I found this tedious. The characterisation was poor. Actually I gave up half way through when nothing much had happened.

The main character is an engineer who goes off to pre war Italy apparently without any political knowledge at all. There he gets involved in espionage. Or does he get involved? Much of the book is taken up with very stilted letters between the engineer and his fiancé. There are also very tedious exchanges with other members of the spying fraternity that consist of the engineer being very angry at what is being suggested and trying to provoke others.

Maybe it is of its time, which in my view is not now.
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on 30 May 2016
I read this excellent espionage story fifty years ago, and was eager to re-read it. It was a wonderful re-acquaintance.
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VINE VOICEon 28 March 2012
I'm working my way through Eric Ambler's books but so far have found this to be one of the best. What I like about Ambler's heroes are they are usually intelligent but perhaps a little naive, a bit short of money, and somehow find themselves unwittingly caught up in Espionage; in this case, in pre-war Fascist Italy - where our man is sent to work as the Manager of the Milan branch of an engineering firm. The plot here is tight and although written in the late 1930s, I didn't find it at all dated. I love the no-nonsense writing that gets straight to the plot. It was well known that Ambler was very anti-fascist and embraced Stalin's communism. Gradually he became less comfortable with his relationship with Communism as the years went by though. But in his early books, you find that the Soviet agent is the one who befriends our protagonist and with whom the reader has empathy. Ambler is the man that inspired Le Carre, Fleming and Len Deighton. I'm so glad I've discovered him too.
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