Obituary: Eric Ambler

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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE SEEMS to have forgotten - perhaps they never realised - that Eric Ambler had a sense of humour, writes Jack Adrian [further to the obituary by James Pettifer, 24 October]. In his many obituaries all the usual suspects (as it were) were trotted out: fear and paranoia . . . left-wing sympathies . . . Mask of Dimitrios . . . carefully polished sentences . . . mordant views . . . darkness and dread. No one can deny any of this, but Ambler enjoyed a joke as much as the next man, and his excellent "entertainments" (to use an apt Greene-ism) were by no means as obsessive or sombre as his obsequists have made out.

His first book, the thriller The Dark Frontier (1936), though an interesting exercise in prediction (the terrifying consequences of the creation of an atom bomb: not bad for 1935, when the book was written), was also largely a parody of the form in which Ambler had fun with his predecessors such as the flatulent William Le Queux and the impossibly urbane E. Phillips Oppenheim.

He also amused himself - as well as, presumably, the huntin', shootin' 'n' fishin' set who read the glossy society weekly The Sketch in 1940, for whom they were written - with a series of short-shorts about a refugee sleuth called Dr Czissar. The stories were not played wholly for laughs; even so the influence of the arch-ironist of detective fiction during the inter-war years Anthony Berkeley Cox (i.e. "Anthony Berkeley" and "Francis Iles") can plainly be seen.

Ambler's best, funniest and sharpest joke, however, was the moral defective Arthur Abdel Simpson (his name alone - although in these PC-drenched days it really shouldn't - never fails to elicit a small snort of amusement), who appeared in two out of a never completed trilogy of books from his middle years: The Light of Day (1962: brilliantly translated into Jules Dassin's 1964 movie Topkapi, with Ambler's old friend Peter Ustinov in the Oscar-winning role of Simpson), and Dirty Story (1967), which contains the memorable second line, in glorious in-your-face italics, "H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty's Vice-Consul in Athens, is a shit."

Simpson is a rogue, a rat, a coward, a swindler, a con-man, a pornographer, and a pimp. His seedy little dodges, pathological mendacity and abject pusillanimity all go to make up a splendidly realised character whose adventures and misadventures (chiefly the latter) are retailed by his creator with manifest glee and relish (a similar glee, incidentally, is exhibited in John Gardner's hilarious series of spy-thrillers featuring the craven and lecherous hitman Brian "Boysie" Oakes, a clear Simpson clone).

The pity of it is that the third Simpson novel was never written - almost certainly sabotaged by unsympathetic critics and unadventurous readers, drearily determined that the cobbler should stick to his last.

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