Eric Ambler Spy Thrillers Elevated the Accidental Protagonist

June 16 2011 auction at pgagalleries.comFor fans of espionage and intrigue, several Eric Ambler vintage books are coming up for auction on June 16, 2011, at PBA Galleries & Auctioneers. The sales include a rare First American Edition of  A Coffin for Dimitrios. (Knopf, 1939). (Lot 5).

I have not read Ambler’s novels, but after reading old and newer reviews, I would like to discover his works. Reviewers particularly seem to like the protagonist, a quiet academic sort, an amateur who manages to bumble into plots of dangerous proportions and in spite of, or because of his, peculiar kind of innocence, outdoes the super sleuths and the evil guys.

According to a Wikipedia entry, “Ambler’s best known works are probably The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) (originally published under the title A Coffin for Dimitrios), which was made into a film in 1944, and The Light of Day (1962), filmed in 1964 as Topkapi and also lampooned in The Pink Panther (1963). He was also a successful screenwriter and lived in Los Angeles in his later years.”

One Amazon review explains why Ambler’s stories seem timeless while many of the Cold War stories of a generation later seem more dated:

‘Dimitrios’ is based on people, not place. He created so many memorable characters: the Turkish secret policeman, clownish off-duty, ruthless and cold-eyed at his work; the Bulgarian good-time girl, whose head and heart told her different things; . . . Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-World War II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst.”

Of course you can buy Ambler’s novels new and used from later reprints, but the original cover sets the story in time and place as much as a setting does for a gem.  You see, feel and smell the book that his contemporaries saw when they opened his book for the first time. You feel the zeitgeist of the end of the 1930s and the lurid covers, making it easier to slip back into time with Eric Ambler.