There is something supremely satisfying, and a bit nostalgic, in reading classic thriller novels. It doesn’t matter if it’s the annoyingly optimistic enthusiasm of Americans in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games, the charmingly pessimistic defeatism of the British in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or Stella Rimington’s At Risk, or even the arrogant sophistication of the French in La Femme Nikita. (I know that one’s a movie and not a book but my high school French is extremely rusty so give me a break.) Even the tongue in cheek dark humor in The Tailor of Panama or Our Man in Havana – which really seem to be the same story – reminds me of my first foray into the genre. Sometime I even get to experience combinations of these archetypes, such as the annoyingly optimistic American and defeatist Brit in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I reviewed previously.
The classics seem fresh, nuanced, with rich full characters that are multifaceted and contradictory. Newer forays into the genre seem cliched or formulaic. Even the newer pieces by the classic authors fall prey to this issue.
Formula and cliche make it easier, of course, for the publisher to continue the series long after it’s jumped the shark. Publishers even manage to milk characters and literary universes long after the death, not only of the author but also of the aforementioned shark the author jumped. All you have to do is peruse your local bookstore – assuming you have one – or the digital catalog of your favorite e-reader to see the ongoing saga of the Ryan clan from the Tom Clancy novels or the continuing adventures of Jason Bourne. Both series have had a dozen novels written since the death of their creators and the Jack Ryan stories had five that were collaborations. Additionally, we cannot ignore the dozens of stories chronicling the ongoing adventures of James Bond decades after the death of Ian Fleming, his progenitor.
While this is not to say, reading these stories cannot have some enjoyment. I admit I still have fun going to see a James Bond movie and in my youth, I read stories from the expanded universes of both Doctor Who and Star Trek. It’s just there isn’t anything fresh or intriguing about them. They are of better use as a refreshing mental palate cleanser than a more nutritious and tasteful main course. Like any menu item, it also helps to get your stories as fresh from the source as you can.
Nick Marlow, the protagonist of Cause for Alarm, is an out of work engineer during the months leading up to the beginning of World War 2. Even worse than just being let go by his previous firm, he has just gotten himself engaged as well. The pre-war, post-depression, economic environment threatens not just his immediate life as he slowly uses his savings looking for a new job in England, but his future. How can he possible marry if he cannot afford to keep his own flat in London? He cannot take just any job either – he is getting married so needs to be able to support his wife and he’s a middle class Englishmen for goodness sake. Finally, though, he finds himself with little choice and agrees to be the managing engineer in the Italian office of a British firm.
This is less of a break then first anticipated by our hero. Nick soon learns someone has killed his predecessor; his office manager is incompetent, corrupt, and working for the Italian secret police; the brother and sister American couple occupying the office below his may in fact be Russian spies; and a local Yugoslav liaison officer is actually a German spy sent to keep watch on the Reich’s so-called ally. This leads Nick to being pummeled by Italian thugs and a desperate, revenge induced plot to spread disinformation and sour the budding Axis collaboration. Hi-jinks, as you might imagine, ensue. Said hi-jinks culminate in a desperate flight across the high Julian Alps to cross from fascist Italy into what was then Yugoslavia.
At first glance, this story appears to be just bursting at the seams with cliché. The concepts seem like tropes and there is a slight whiff of the two dimensional in the characters sketches. That is the wonderful revelation when reading early Ambler. Much like the plot of the story itself, none of your expectations is meet. The plot moves along at an exciting pace, the motivations are believable – if slightly outside the ordinary – and the characterizations are fresh and memorable. (The initial description of the Yugoslav General cited often as one of the unique descriptions of the genre.) All of this makes for a completely new experience.
Yet at the same time, everything feels familiar.
Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm was only the fourth novel he wrote back in 1936 – publishing it in September of 1938 – and considered remarkable for its prophetic tone. Most of us in the 21st century forget, to the average person in 1938 World War 2 wasn’t inevitable, or at least so it didn’t seem. In fact, even those who saw the spectre of war barrelling toward them hoped they’d be able to shift its tracks to avoid it. Cause for Alarm, therefore, not only proved itself as a prophetic glimpse into the near future, but also laid the groundwork for the thriller and noir genre we recognize, know, love, and whinge over when used so poorly today.