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Uncommon Danger (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 28 May 2009
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'A crackerjack spy story, jammed with action, intrigue, thrills and super-villainy' Saturday Review 'If you want to experience the feel of the Continent in the 1930s, you will find few better guides' - Robert Harris
From the Inside Flap
Kenton's career as a journalist depended on his facility with languages, his knowledge of European politics, and his quick judgment. Where his judgment sometimes failed him was in his personal life. When he finds himself on a train bound for Austria with insufficient funds after a bad night of gambling, he jumps at the chance to earn a fee to help a refugee smuggle securities across the border. He soon discovers that the documents he holds have a more than monetary value, and that European politics has more twists and turns than the most convoluted newspaper account. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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When down-on-his-luck British journalist Kenton boarded an Austria-bound train at Nuremberg he likely had no idea what danger lurked within. Strapped for cash after losing virtually all his money in a dice game, Kenton agrees to smuggle an envelope across the Austrian border for an old man claiming to be a refugee from Hitler's Germany. This was the point at which Kenton stumbled at the threshold of danger in Eric Ambler's spy thriller "Background to Danger".
Long before Fleming's James Bond, le Carre's George Smiley and Len Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the late 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) and John Buchan (Thirty Nine Steps). Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-World War II Europe, a world of shadows and shades of grey. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of Fleming (who read Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" while writing "From Russia With Love") le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. "Background to Danger" is an excellent example of Ambler at work.
Kenton's absorption into the world of intrigue begins shortly after taking possession of the documents on the train. It quickly becomes clear that the man is no refugee and the envelope contains documents that foretell danger for anyone unlucky enough to have them. The documents are sought by ruthless interested parties that include Soviet agents (a brother and sister who make appearances in a number of Ambler's books) and industrial spies hired by an English munitions company that belies possession of the documents will enable it to enhance its sales of arms to Eastern Europe. As these parties close in on him Kenton is forced to think on his feet and make life and death decisions about who he can and cannot trust. Kenton knows his life is in danger and he must flea Austria for the relative safety of Czechoslovakia. The story follows Kenton's escape attempt until a climactic scene in which the few remaining loose ends are tied up.
As with all his best work Ambler is a great scene-setter. You get a real feel for the many geographic settings he uses as the book progresses. Ambler is also good at character development. His writing is terse and to the point yet the characters nature is revealed slowly and in a non-hackneyed manner. There are no saints or starkly painted devils in Ambler's books but ultimately Ambler's protagonists (and the reader) are provided with enough information to make a choice between good and evil or, sometimes, a hard choice between the lesser of two evils.
Background to Danger is an excellent book and makes for a worthy introduction to Ambler's work for anyone not familiar with his work. For fans of Ambler, I'd say this is among the upper end of his stories. They are all good, but I'd say that Background to Danger is close to the top of the heap.
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.