Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene

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According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

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