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Plus Ca Change, Plus C'Est La Meme Chose!,
This review is from: The Levanter (Paperback)
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 when he accidentally learns that one of his factories has been taken over by the Palestinian Action Force as a base for terrorist activities. Howell finds himself forced to help implement an anti-Israeli raid. 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 and mistress). 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?