“Eric Ambler is a master of his craft’ Sunday Telegraph ‘If you want to experience the feel of the Continent in the 1930s, you will find few better guides.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
This is a cracking, though quite low key, classic espionage thriller, written by one of the acknowledged masters of the form, Eric Ambler in 1938.
I’m already an Ambler fan. His The Mask of Dimitrios is one of my favourite ever books (and Alfred Hitchcock’s too I believe). If you want to start with Ambler I would probably start there. If you’re a film producer then please buy the rights and do an updated remake, its themes are incredibly current.
History is turning back to the concerns of Cause for Alarm too, which is set largely in Fascist Italy in the outer regions of the arms trade. The shadow of war hangs over the story, though it fails to make too much impact on Ambler’s typically unperturbed protagonist, Nicholas Marlow.
A trade slump and the “yes” his now-fiancée, Claire, just delivered drive Marlow – a naturally conservative engineer – to take a job in the Italian office of the Spartacus Machine Tool Company. He plods through Black Country streets to their rather off-kilter Wolverhampton works to get the low-down on doing business in Mussolini’s Italy: there’s a bribery fund for starters.
Of course, Marlow’s business in Milan turns out to be about much more than lathes.
Was his predecessor’s death really an accident? Why does the Yugoslav General Vagas wear make-up and carry a sword stick, and is he really a German agent as Marlow’s new neighbour Zaleshoff says? But are Zaleshoff and his sister, Tamara, really Soviet agents as Vagas tells him during a bizarre night at the opera?
Milan is grey and as charmless as the Fascist authorities who take far too much interest in Marlow’s business, even allowing that the machines he is selling are boring out shell casings that Zaleshoff is keen to remind him might soon be landing on British targets.
In classic thriller style, fish-out-of-water Marlow is dragged in to a dirty world for which he is ill prepared. The last third of the novel is a tense and taught escape story that the slow-burning earlier chapters nicely set up.
There’s plenty of contemporary politics here. Ambler, like many men of his generation, was sympathetic to the view that Soviet Russia and communism might be the only effective opposition to the rise of Fascism. It’s not too heavy handed though, the odd didactic speech aside.
Ambler’s an excellent writer, of course, but some of the dialogue has dated badly. British readers of my age will recognise the clipped black-and-white tones of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner and enjoy the odd inappropriate smile at Marlow, who is, in any case, a rather exasperating character at times.
If you’re interested, this is an important novel in the history of spy thrillers – as is explained very well in a very good introduction by John Preston in the Penguin Classic edition I read – and if you’re not it’s still an entertaining and genuinely thrilling read with loads of period colour that might send you off to your history books after you finish. I highly recommend it.
Added 5th March 2018