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Compelling mix of old-fashioned fluff and modern grit
on 9 January 2001
Harris's introduction paints Ambler as an icon, the thriller writer's thriller writer, and it's not hard to see why. The coolly detached challenge of the opening sentence ensures you won't give up early, the descriptions of the Riviera are beautifully done (you can feel the languid heat radiating off the cheap paper), and the hero (although anti-hero might be more appropriate) is engagingly self-effacing and wilfully pig-headed throughout. He is also very much afraid, not in a craven way, just in a normal fear of screwing-up-his-life-and-possibly-dying kind of way, and it's this broad portrait of a thouroughly average man caught way out of his depth that propels the reader through the occasionally tedious goings-on at the beachfront pension. It's Vadassy's terrible normalcy that also makes the revelations of the other character's true selves that much more compelling, and in one case genuinely moving. In one courageous and defeated man's description of life in a concentration camp, Ambler thrusts what appears to be a by-the-numbers holiday crime caper into the realm of vital political humanist writing. It came as a genuine surprise when I remembered afterwards that he wrote this in 1938. The man was clearly ahead of his time. Add a cracking finale reminiscent of A Touch of Evil, and you pretty much have a must-read on your hands. Perfect for anyone with a sense of nostalgia coupled with an acute awareness of the essential uncosiness of life.