Most of us attempt to attain a certain level of skill. This seems like an incredibly simple and obvious statement to make. We would much rather be good at something than to fail at it completely. This concept especially goes for people we hire to complete tasks for us. When you employ a plumber or a mechanic you expect them to know which end of the wrench to use or to understand the correct way to change a set of spark plugs.
For most of the world a basic level of competency is expected. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to be world renown or a Nobel prize winner, but you should at least know which end is up.
Americans are a little different in this regard. (Or at least we like to think that we are.) There is a culture of exceptionalism with Americans for which sometimes, rightly or wrongly, we are criticized. Traditionally, Americans concept of what should be considered acceptable is to be the best you can be in whatever you are doing. You should never accept second best and always strive for being number one. This attitude often annoys Americas friends and allies as well as their enemies. It is only in recent years we have seen a more lenient level of competency with the culture of everyone getting a participation award.
This level of exceptionalism, however, has invaded and skewed certain concepts; and at one point during the Golden Age of Science Fiction led to the overabundance of what is known as the “competent man”. A stock character in science fiction in the late 1930s and 1940s, the “competent man” isn’t really just competent at all. Or rather, he is exceptionally competent. He is able not just to do one thing well but all things well. He is just as comfortable performing the basic tasks of whatever his job might be – negotiating a treaty or running a lab – as he is flying a spaceship or climbing a mountain. Additionally, there is no explanation as to why the “competent man” is able to perform all these tasks. He just can. (Also, it’s always a he; this was the rampant sexism of the early science fiction age.)
Being exceptional – or at least competent – in your job or one aspect of your life is a good thing. Being competent in everything, a modern Renaissance man if you will, is simply unbelievable. Unbelievable whether it is in real life (sorry Mr. President but you can’t be the expert in everything) or if it is in a fiction. What’s more, in both cases having someone that can do anything or even just thinks they can gets really annoying after a very short while.
The Night-Comers is the eighth novel I’ve read by Eric Ambler, these include; A Coffin for Dimitrios, Epitaph for a Spy, Journey into Fear, The Schirmer Inheritance, Passage of Arms, Judgement on Deltchev, and The Light of Day. This review also marks the fifth novel of Ambler’s I have reviewed. Although I don’t really count two of them because they were perfunctory one or two sentence reviews that didn’t provide any context or critique. (Sorry about that and please don’t look for them on my blog, hopefully they are buried far enough in the bowels of Goodreads.com.)
Over the course of these 8 books, which cover over 32 years of the authors career from 1937 to 1959, there has been a subtle development of the main characters. Ambler is considered to be one of those that helped to develop the genre of the modern spy thriller. I’ve mentioned myself he is most likely the grandfather of the genre whom Le Carre and Clancy have to thank for their careers. The development of the main character over the course of the books goes from an amateur without any knowledge of what they are doing being thrust well over their heads; to a character that, amazingly, seems to be able to deal with the situation. As I mentioned in my review of Judgement on Deltchev, the protagonist seemed more ankle deep in trouble as opposed to neck deep.
Even though the Ambler novels have the advantage of not having a mythos or legacy to follow from story to story with the same main protagonist or set of protagonist continuing like the cast from one of our favorite tv shows, he has fallen into the same trap that you see with Jack Ryan from the Clancy novels. The protagonist becomes competent.
In Epitaph for a Spy, the protagonist, Josef Vadassy, is a stateless linguist on vacation. He has neither the skills, nor the countenance to figure out who, among the many and varied guests at his vacation hotel, could possibly be a spy. He bumbles his way through the novel trying to turn what native intelligence he has – he is able to speak three languages so he’s not a complete fool – to the task but only because he has to in order to save his own skin.
By contrast Steven Fraser, the cool and collected British engineer, has no problem navigating the treacherous shores of the Southeast Asian coup in which he has landed. He is able to competently fix an electrical generator, even though he is a mechanical not an electrical engineer. Additionally, he negotiates to maintain both his life and the life of the young lady he’s attached to when he is required to confront the architects of the coup. And, as he just so happens to have served in the British Army during the war, he purports himself well enough to understand the capabilities – not only of tanks – but of Naval gunfire and anti-aircraft guns.
All of this may sound great if we’re watching a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. In fact Eric Ambler did have a good run as a scriptwriter in Hollywood after his own stint in the service during World War 2. Unfortunately I didn’t grab a copy of Casino Royale or The Bourne Conspiracy. I grabbed an Eric Ambler novel and quite frankly I miss some of the rougher aspects of his earlier, pre-military service and Hollywood affected, works.
The Night-Comers is a fun read and a well crafted tale and I stand by the four stars (why out of five; and again, I still don’t know why they’re stars) I gave it on Goodreads. The characters, while not completely three dimensional, are thick enough that a slight breeze wouldn’t blow them away. You are going to enjoy the book when you read it; especially if it is your first time reading an Eric Ambler novel. Unfortunately, if it is your first time you will miss out on some of the more interesting aspects of the creation of the genre. If, like me, this is just one of the many novels by the grandfather of the spy thriller you’ve read, you may find yourself missing the early days. Lamenting that grandpa seems to have changed some of those wonderful stories he once told in order to compete with the ones in the movies.