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Conway Carruthers. international man of mystery
on 6 November 2013
Long before le Carre's George Smiley and Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers and John Buchan Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-World War II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst.
Ironically perhaps, Dark Frontier (Ambler's first book) was not as much a departure from earlier works in the genre as much as it was a parody of those works. While reading Dark Frontier after having read Ambler's later stories it struck me that by this parody perhaps he sought out to destroy the genre before recreating it. A brief look at the outlines of the story lends some small weight for this assertion.
It is 1935 and Henry Barstow is an unassuming, unsuspecting English physicist on vacation in the English countryside. It is during this holiday that he happens to meet a gentleman calling himself Simon Groom who claims to be involved in the munitions industry. And does he have a tale to tell Henry. A small country in eastern or central Europe has successfully unleashed the power of the atom and is on the way toward creating an atomic bomb. (This in and of itself is an interesting plot twist as the idea of an atomic bomb seems quite prescient for an author writing in 1936). Groom tries to enlist Barstow's help in sabotaging the plans before the balance of power in the world is changed, and not likely for the better. Barstow laughs off the invitation and goes on his merry way. But soon enough he manages to bump himself on the head and after waking up in a concussed state believes that he is one Conway Carruthers, man about town and master spy. The rest of the book follows Barstow/Carruthers in a role best described as two-parts Walter Mitty and one-part Austin Powers. The result is a book that is two-parts entertaining and two-parts wholly unbelievable.
Dark Frontier is far from Ambler's best work. For him the best was yet to come. Yet at the same time it was enjoyable to read. The plotting was good (once you got over the bump-on-the head premise) and the story had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged in it. Ambler's prose can be very funny and the observations made by Carruthers as he careens from pillar to post in this eastern European quasi-police state were both funny and sometimes acerbic.
I heartily recommend this book to any fan of Ambler. Anyone who has read and enjoyed his later works will certainly derive some benefit to seeing where his writing life started in earnest. For someone new to Ambler I would not suggest you start here. I think if you start here you may not feel compelled to explore his other stories and that would be a great loss. Anyone who likes Alan Furst (amongst others should like Ambler) and I would suggest starting with any of the following, in no particular order: A Coffin for Dimitrios (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard);Epitaph for a Spy (Penguin Modern Classics); or Cause for Alarm (Penguin Modern Classics).