My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Running a functioning democracy is tough. It’s even tougher when you’ve never run one before. Tougher still if you are trying to forge one after a devastating war. This is made even harder by being in a fictional Balkan country. Now on top of all that if your functioning democracy isn’t even really a functioning democracy but rather a thinly veiled repressive authoritarian single party dictatorship, well, that could get you killed.
Possibly getting themselves killed is a situation in which both Deltchev, the titular one time party leader of a fictitious Balkan country, and Foster, a writers-blocked professional London playwright, find themselves. Each for very different reasons. Deltchev is on trial for planning the assassination of the head of state and his political rival. Foster has been hired, for unknown reasons, by an American paper to cover the trial. While Deltchev must be prepared for what the prosecution throws at him, Foster must try and avoid the machinations of Deltchev’s opponents as he fails to fall for the story being spun and tries to find the truth.
This is the seventh book I’ve read by Eric Ambler, these include; Epitaph for a Spy, The Light of Day, Journey into Fear, Passage of Arms, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and The Schirmer Inheritance. Of those, I’ve reviewed three (Epitaph for a Spy, The Schirmer Inheritance, and Passage of Arms) although two of those were crappy two sentence reviews that shouldn’t really count. Looking back at all seven of these books, the reviews I did make – such as some of them are – and the ratings I’ve given the books (so many stars out of five – why five I wonder and why stars…) the one constant I see thus far is that Eric Ambler is a very good writer. He is, however, only a very good writer.
Now, you may ask, what do you mean by that and is there something wrong with being a very good writer. There is really nothing wrong with being a very good writer. I aspire to be at least a very good writer myself one day. One of the reasons I’m writing more extensive reviews now.
That being said, he is just a very good writer. He is not perfect. He is not always incredible. He is not even consistently great. He is just… very good.
One of the things that makes him stand out is he is the father, or more likely grandfather, of the modern thriller novel. Clive Cussler, John le Carre, and Tom Clancy wouldn’t exist if it were not for Ambler working up the the basics of the genre prior to World War 2.
So when I read an Eric Ambler book I expect a very good book. Which is why this one seems to be so disappointing to me. It’s not a very good book. It is really just a passable book. Most of the elements of a very good Ambler thriller are there; the man out of his depth, political intrigue with factions in conflict that are on the edge of exploding, and a mysterious and strong female character. Unfortunately, none of the elements seem to click correctly either on their own or with each other.
Our man out of his depth, this time the aforementioned well known British playwright, seems to be only ankle deep as opposed the usual waist – or even better – neck deep that other Ambler protagonist get. Although he reacts poorly to seeing a dead body, we do find out that he can handle himself well being shot at as he has been under fire before during the war. Additionally, unlike most of the other main characters in Ambler’s other books, he seems to be actively searching out the problem instead of just trying to survive it. What fun would Jack Ryan be if he simply pursued the bad guy instead of having to fend the bad guy off because the bad guy became a personal as well as international threat.
Likewise, the political intrigue and the opposing forces barely touch Foster as he follows the clues. Instead of being sucked deeper into the maelstrom of the political machinations, he is considered more of an annoyance by the political powers at play in our fictional Balkan country. He even uses that perception to convince the evil socialist plotters he is unimportant and actively get himself out of trouble. No being pushed deeper into the plot as he accidentally drives himself further into the fray.
Finally, although there are potentially two separate femme fatales in this story, mother and daughter this time, they are the least active female protagonists Ambler has ever created. They are immobile to the point of actually being under house arrest. The mother is never seen outside of her room let alone her house and often remains seated the entire time she interacts with Foster. The daughter is used as a plot device to force the dead body into the story. Even when she manages to be active – by escaping from captivity to see Foster – it is docile and quite frankly a rather feeble exercise. She climbs a tree to get out over her own garden wall. When she does show up in our hero’s bed, she is asleep and fully clothed. She provides only a plot point that any of a number of other characters in the story could have easily provided.
This is one of the first books that Ambler wrote after World War 2 that I have read. The other books were either written before the war or a few years after this one. Perhaps Ambler just needed some time to refine his style for a post war world. Both the earlier and the later books seem to have a better balance. The characters are firmer in their capabilities and those capabilities help further the story with less disruption, an even consistency, and with a touch more believability.
At least I hope that this is the case. I have three more Eric Ambler novels in my collection yet to read. The Night-Comers, The Levanter, and The Care of Time. These three books were written from 1956 to 1981 respectively. If my assumption is accurate than Ambler should have found his groove once again and I can enjoy a very good book, written well.