Underrated / Spies like us: The case for Eric Ambler

To be honest, it's a moot point whether Eric Ambler really is underrated - Graham Greene called him 'the master' and himself 'one of his disciples'; John Le Carre said he was the well into which all other thriller writers had dipped. His books have been filmed (the 1942 version of Journey into Fear is practically worth an Underrated in itself), given awards and endlessly reprinted. But the sad truth is that few people read him nowadays, and a disturbingly large number haven't even heard of him.

To some extent, that's understandable. His post- war thrillers never found the careless rapture of the half-dozen or so he wrote during the Thirties - partly because the Cold War deprived him of the conviction that drove the earlier books (he recanted his pro-Soviet sympathies in Judgment on Deltchev).

One of the appealing things about those first books is that they are, uniquely for the time, in Britain at any rate, left- wing thrillers - and because of that, they are believable. Where Geoffrey Household hymned the effortless superiority of his elite 'Class X', and Buchan idealised the stolidly conservative values of the landed gentry and the petit bourgeoisie, Ambler wrote about ordinary, decent men - unheroic, even cowardly, but scraping through appalling messes by a combination of luck, cunning and adrenalin (plus the occasional sympathetic KGB agent).

The books are also technically impressive (look at the way that in The Mask of Dimitrios the main character doesn't even appear until near the end), and politically astute; and since the fragmented central Europe he portrayed has now reappeared, Ambler is now essential reading. Though really, he always was.

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